BENFICA are to Portugal what Real Madrid and Juventus are to Spain and Italy. In other words, wherever you go in the country, fans of the club can be found, from Algarve villages to the biggest towns and cities.
And across Europe, wherever there are Portuguese people, the chances are they will be Benfica fans, hence the club has developed into a more global institution than some of its rivals. For example, when Benfica won the Primeira Liga title in 2018, London was awash with fans of As Águias celebrating their latest triumph.
Outside the top dozen clubs, Benfica rank among the best of a second tier, a great name from the early years of pan-European club competition, one that excited fans right across the continent and gave the world some magnificent players, such as the brilliant Eusébio.
Benfica still manage to hold their own in Europe and are regular UEFA Champions league participants (15 times since 1992-93) and have reached two Europa League finals in the past eight years. Domestically, Benfica, Porto and, to a lesser extent, Sporting, dominate Portuguese football. In fact, of the 85 league titles, 37 have been won by Benfica, 28 by Porto and 18 have gone to Sporting. Only twice, in 1946 (Belenenses) and 2001 (Boavista) has the trophy been lifted by any other contender. This lack of strength in depth has undoubtedly hampered Portuguese football, but the country’s top clubs have gained a strong reputation as “talent factories” and have earned considerable sums of money from player trading. Indeed, CIES Football Observatory, in April 2020, revealed that Benfica are the number two club in the world for providing a “stepping stone” for players. Only Ajax have a better record in bringing top talent through. Sporting (5th) and Porto (8th) have also excelled at player development.
In some ways, Portuguese clubs have carved a niche for themselves in providing a market that can be tapped into by the clubs from the “big five” leagues, Spain, England, Germany, Italy and France. With Benfica and Porto, in particular, able to benefit from regular Champions League football, these clubs fill a gap between the very top clubs and the regular Europa League participants. Benfica may not be Real Madrid, but the combination of the club’s heritage, its role as a player nursery and UEFA money places them in a decent position in European football’s hierarchy.
If a European Super League ever becomes reality, there will be some people outside of Lisbon that will call for Benfica to be included. Their two European Cups, in 1961 and 1962, may have been a long time ago, but they are still a huge football institution. The dilemma for Benfica and a number of clubs who have been pushed to the sidelines by contemporary corporate football, is how to join that elite band or find other ways to grow. Benfica are a well-known global name, thanks to the Portuguese diaspora, the legend of Eusébio and the club’s European heritage, which is substantial. Can Benfica make the leap from top of the second tier of the European game? And if so, what is it going to take? Is Portugal too small a market to allow that to happen without a big foreign investor transforming the club into a southern European Paris Saint-Germain? Whatever the future brings, Benfica will remain one of the grand names of world football.
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