For our first feature on a top European football team we travel to Portugal’s capital, Lisbon, and visit the country’s most successful club, Benfica. Based in the Luz district, Sport Lisboa e Benfica is in fact a multi-sports club, but it is its football team that we turn to.
Benfica was formed in 1904 and called the old Estadio da Luz (the Stadium of Light) their home from the start. They have won the Portuguese Liga 31 times and the Portuguese Cup on 27 occasions. To that they have added four national Supercups. However, it is their record in the major European competitions that underline their history and pedigree.
Benfica have appeared in no fewer than seven European Cup (Champions League) finals. Their first final, in 1961, saw them beat Spain’s Barcelona 3-2 in Bern, Switzerland. On the way to the championship, they scored a phenomenal amount of goals. First, they thrashed Hearts of Scotland in Edinburgh 5-1, and beat Ujpest Dozsa of Hungary 7-4 in Lisbon. They then dealt AGF of Denmark the same fate in a 7-2 trouncing on the road before downing Rapid Vienna 4-2 in the semifinal.
The following year they retained the trophy, this time beating Real Madrid 5-3 in Amsterdam. Again, their goal-scoring was impressive. Benfica dominated Austria Vienna 2-6 at home and then crushed Nuremburg 3-7 in Germany.
Five other finals, however, ended in Benfica’s defeat, including their 2-1 loss to AC Milan in 1963. Two years later, despite having scored an incredible 27 goals in just four games leading to the final, they lost 1-0 to the other Milan club, Internazionale.
In 1968, Benfica nearly went out in the first round to Northern Ireland’s Glentoran, narrowly avoiding a shocking defeat. By the time the team reached the semifinal, they were back in top form, beating Italy’s Juventus 3-0. That just left Manchester United in the final.
The final, at Wembley Stadium in London, still remains one of the most memorable of all time. Benfica had legendary Portguese star Eusebio in their lineup, alongside many other international stars. However, United had Bobby Charlton and, of course, the unbelievably talented George Best. Both Charlton and Best scored in a 4-1 extra-time win, sending Benfica back to Lisbon empty-handed.
It would be 20 years before Benfica made another final appearance. But again, they lost, this time on penalties to PSV Eindhoven from Holland following a 0-0 draw in Stuttgart. In 1990 they were back for their seventh final, losing 1-0 to a star-studded AC Milan side. In 1983, Benfica lost the UEFA Cup final 2-1 on aggregate to Belgian’s Anderlecht, and their last Portuguese Liga Championship came in 2004.
Certainly the club’s golden era occured in the 1960s, when the fantastic Eusebio famously wore the red shirt of the club. Eusebio da Silva Ferreira was born in 1942 in Mozambique. He was a naturally gifted footballer, capable of scoring from all angles. He possessed a scorching shot, blazing speed, and heading ability, all topped by his world-respected sportsmanship. My endearing memory of him is that he always shook the hand of the goalkeeper he had beaten from the penalty spot and often after scoring in open play against them. Truly, he was a soccer gentleman who let his talent do the talking.
His record over 15 years in a Benfica shirt is simply staggering. In all, he scored 727 goals in 715 matches. He has been named the ninth-best footballer of all time and played for Benfica until 1975. He finally ended his playing days with a spell in North America playing for Las Vegas Quicksilver and New Jersey Americans.
More recently, As Aguias (The Eagles) have been, by their standards, in decline. The famous old Estadio da Luz — once with a capacity of 120,000 — suffered from a lack of investment and, in 2002, was demolished to make way for a new one. The new stadium houses just over half the original number of fans, but is a dramatic and fitting home for one of Europe’s most magical names.
Benfica’s huge and worldwide fan-base has enjoyed many great players over the years. They in turn have repaid their club by being amongst the most loyal and fanatical supporters in the world. The last time I saw Benfica was in a group stage match in last year’s Champions League at the San Siro, when they played away to AC Milan. Their supporters were loud, passionate, and many in number, despite it being a mid-week game in Italy. Highly impressive, to say the least.
They may never again match their Golden Era accomplishments, but those achievements have secured Benfica’s name as one of the game’s legendary squads.