The Glorious One
We are gonna play twice as better as last season, said Jesus, and twice might not be enough for me, he added. That was the bold announcement stated by manager Jorge Jesus when he signed for Benfica in 2009. Four pre-season tournaments, one league championship, one league cup, and several wins by ridiculous margins (ranging from 8-0s to the now common 4 and 5 nils) later, and we are left to wonder that perhaps the statement was actually too modest.
Jesus implemented a ridiculously offensive tactical base: a 4-1-3-2 with a striker partnership, a free flowing number 10 (Aimar), two offensive wingers, one wing back (Coentrão) and one offensive full back (Maxi). Javi Garcia is the goal scoring anchor man (pardon the paradox) and when David Luiz was still part of the squad he had freedom to join the team up front! Now, I will not go into the tactical intricacies analysis because that has already been discussed to death, and is beyond this article’s point. What I would like to emphasize, is how Jesus was intelligent enough to tap into the club’s psyche.
Benfica, bigger than… itself.
Sport Lisboa e Benfica is an idiosyncratic club with an obsession with being (being, not becoming someday, just being) the greatest. The club directors brag about having the highest number of associates in the world, the club used to have the biggest stadium in Europe (the previous stadium of Light with a 120 000 capacity, the current has 65 000 and is only the biggest in Portugal) the fans are proud of the 2 European Cups won in a row and several European Cup Final participations. It is, by far, the club with the biggest supporter base in Portugal and Portuguese speaking countries. And yet, the supporters feel unhappy. Only when the team is winning by great margins, playing breath taking offensive football and topping it of with trophies are the supporters moderately content. Because for a Benfica supporter, doing all that is supposed to be normal, it is the standard from which to build upon.
Of course if Benfica wins the League the celebrations are an overwhelming demonstration of excess:
However, the next day, dreams about the following season’s European glory are already being imagined. It is not enough to participate in the Champions League, Benfica has to challenge for the title! No matter how disproportionate the budget is to other clubs, or how rarely they actually make it into the final stages of the competition, Benfica was born to be the best, to win everything, absolutely everything that exists.
It is very hard to understand where this obsession with being the greatest comes from. We can hardly point to a Portuguese cultural characteristic, and as was said before, Benfica transcends it’s country of origin borders. So where does it come from?
Benfica supporters’ madness
There are examples of Benfica supporters’ delusions of grandeur that precede the famous 1960’s victorious European campaigns. The club’s very genesis is a ludicrous story of a bunch of friends founding a club with absolutely no infra structures whatsoever, no equipment, no balls to play with, of course no playing field, no funding, and yet the objectives where to be (not to become, to simply be) the best club in the country (and in the subsequent years the World) oh, and to do it by playing only with Portuguese players.1 Later, in the 1940s, Benfica supporters financed and built practically with their own hands the first Luz Stadium (The Stadium of Light). They built it literally out of nothing, no financial plan, no government support, just sheer power of will.
Adding to that, you see the most ridiculous emotional speeches, specially from foreign players, about the inner “grandness” of the club, it is rare for a foreign player, or manager, that has spent more than 3 seasons in the club that doesn’t describe it in the most mythical terms:
“Whether it rains, it’s freezing cold or boiling hot, it doesn’t matter, even if the match is set in the end of the World, between the snowy mountain tops or the flames of hell… by land…by sea…or by air, they will come, the Benfica supporters following their team…huge…incomparable…extraordinary…supporters!”
Bella Gutman (manager, 1959-1962 and 1965-66)
“I played three seasons in Marseille after leaving Benfica, alongside stars like Waddle and Papin, but Benfica will always be in my heart. My team mates didn’t understand my enthusiasm towards the club at all. They were always bragging about Velodrome’s fantastic atmosphere, but I always thought “they should play in a packed Maracanã or Luz stadiums…”.
Well, that day finally came. Benfica vs Marseille for the European Cup semi-final. I remember Papin making fun of me and saying “I am already trembling with fear”. I was attending a minor ankle injury before warm up, so my team mates went on without me…when I got to the tunnel I noticed that they were all still there and didn’t want to go in at all. I realized that it was the exact moment, when Eusébio was called up to the field to receive some kind of homage, and the stadium detonated with clamour! They turned to me and asked “what was that?”. I said “That, is the Stadium of Light’s Hell”.
Carlos Mozer (player, 1987-89 and 1992-1995)
“Reporter– Speaking of Benfica, are you still a supporter?
Magnusson– [pauses for a few seconds, as if to try to make sense of the question, then portrays the most condescending of smiles and says] are you kidding me? Is this a joke?”
Mats Magnusson (player, 1987-1992)
“It was the best experience I ever had as a player, Benfica is forever in my heart.”
Frabrizio Miccoli (player 2005-2007)
“Benfica enters your heart and doesn’t leave anymore…words cannot describe the true greatness of this club”
David Luiz (player 2007-2011)
What is this essence that seems to transcend time, space and people? An inner grandness that lives without any physical references? Even the club’s nickname is “The Glorious one”…the Glorious one for crying out loud!
It is not just about winning trophies either. Benfica has spent the last 20 years watching other clubs (Porto in particular) achieve more League and European titles, and yet, Benfica is the most popular portuguese football club by far. But that’s not even the point. The club (players, supporters, board of directors, staff) perceives itself as something grand beyond definition. To illustrate:
February 27th, 2011, Sunday night. The Luz stadium is the venue for the 21st round of the league, Benfica vs Maritimo. Porto had won his match and was 11 points ahead and still unbeaten in the League. With nine games to go the odds are firmly in favour of the northern club to snap back the league title from Benfica. Not even the most fanatic of supporters honestly believes that Benfica can still retain the title.
However, the stadium is packed, 55 000 turn up to sheer the team on. A scenario common throughout the league’s course, Benfica will have the top 3 or 4 spots for highest attendances, and when playing away from home it is an almost guaranteed full house for the home side (mostly with Benfica supporters).
The game itself is an absolute cracker. Maritimo parks the bus, sees 3 shoots hit the post and a miraculous performance from their goalkeeper. On the 75th minute Maritimo scores from a corner to make it 0-1. Benfica presses on, 1-1 on the 81st and then 2-1 on the 93rd just a few seconds before the added time was over and 2 minutes after a goal was dismissed by the referee! It was a fantastic come back, no doubt about that, the kind of stuff that only happens in poorly written Hollywood sport films from the 80s, but considering how impossible the title challenge appeared, does it justify the celebration that succeed?
My theory is that the supporters and players were just celebrating the inner grandness of the moment, it was a celebration of fulfilment, a convergence of the club with it’s very essence, and I also think this is all completely subconscious.
Let us go back to the 2008-2009 seasons’ finale. Quique Flores was on his way out after a League Cup win and a terrible League run.2 It was the 4th championship won in a row for Porto and morale was low in the Luz Stadium stands.
Jorge Jesus was the man chosen to, once again, challenge for the title. Reyes was going back to Atlético Madrid and Suazo made his journey back to Inter Milan. Ramires and Saviola were in. The team was, at least, as strong as the season before, and perhaps enhanced by the Aimar/Saviola symbiotic partnership, but we didn’t know that yet.
There is no doubt that the squad had quality, but Jesus knew, that for the supporters being the best is not enough, Benfica has to be clearly the best, simply put: the greatest. This was the feeling that manager Jorge Jesus wanted to awaken in the club. Hence, the bold words he spoke in his first press conference as a Benfica manager. Moreover, he decided to always present the best 11 in every pre-season friendly and simply crush anyone who face them. As a result the supporting masses and even the media went into an exhilarating mood of praise, branding Benfica virtually unbeatable. As an aftermath of this gigantic demonstration of power, local city rivals (Sporting) entered in a dark state of depression before the season even began, a depression that has lasted for the last 2 years with no end in sight.
The supporters recognize something of the club’s essence in the way Jesus’ team just presses on for one more goal, playing in a dramatically offensive style, as if to crush the opposition under the raw immenseness of the club. The last couple of seasons have seen some happy faces in the Luz Stadium, Benfica is being true to himself. Even if the 2010-11 finishes with no silverware for the clubs museum (which is highly unlikely) it has been a memorable ride, the sort of stuff you tell your grand children in the future…
“Benfica was pressing on, a vile referee had already dismissed a goal and our strikers had hit the post several times! Everything was set against us: luck, the referee, the goal posts, a goal keeper having the night of his life, and even the will of the gods themselves! But they didn’t expect our tireless left back’s resilience! Fábio Coentrão hit a shoot that almost pierced the net and we won the match!”
by Jack Rabbit
1 This club rule lasted until the year 1982.
2 Which for Benfica simply means not finishing 1st, doesn’t matter if it’s 2nd, 3rd or 11th place.