Why Benfica matter: Eusebio, eagles and the club of 22,000 trophies
22:00 GMT, 25 March 2012
Here is the news from Portugal: there was another nationwide strike on Thursday in protest at the state of the economy, the high-speed train link to Madrid has been cancelled, the citrus crop has been hit by frost and drought, sardine fishing in the Algarve has been suspended to protect stocks and Benfica’s Victory and Glory look most assured.
At least they did the other morning. Victory and Glory are the names of the two Benfica eagles which not only act as the living symbols of the storied Lisbon club, but who actually live in the Estadio da Luz. /03/25/article-2120208-125428E1000005DC-535_468x328.jpg” width=”468″ height=”328″ alt=”Legend: Eusebio plied his trade for Benfica” class=”blkBorder” />
Legend: Eusebio plied his trade for Benfica
Either Victory or Glory will swoop around the famous stadium before kick-off to rouse the 65,000 crowd. An eagle will land.
But there is doubt about the presence of the other living symbol of Benfica, Eusebio.
‘Our King is getting better,’ said a Benfica spokesman. Eusebio, the club’s greatest-ever player, a reference point in the history of the European Cup, has been in and out of hospital.
It is uncertain whether the 70-year-old who scored 476 goals in 443 games for Benfica, 59 from 78 matches in Europe, will take his seat in the rebuilt ground they still refer to locally as The Cathedral. Eusebio has seat No 9.
Even if he is absent, Eusebio will still be present. There are two bronzes at the original Stadium of Light and Chelsea fans will be able to get their picture taken beside the one of Eusebio placed, handily, by the Benfica Megastore.
Benfica have been in Europe since 1957 and are as familiar a continental name as Real Madrid or Juventus, yet Chelsea have never been here. The clubs have never met competitively, although the Encyclopedia Eusebio available in said store reveals a 1964 friendly at Stamford Bridge.
Soar: A Benfica eagle will fly around the stadium
The lack of meetings says more about Chelsea’s modern rise under Roman Abramovich than it does about Benfica. After Real Madrid won the first five European Cups, Benfica won the next two. They defeated Barcelona to claim their first in 1961 and a year later, with Eusebio scoring twice, they beat Real 5-3 in Amsterdam.
As the current issue of World Soccer says, at the end of the game, Ferenc Puskas, who had scored a hat-trick, sought out the 20-year-old from Mozambique and handed him his shirt.
It was a passing of the baton. In terms of European greatness, Benfica walked through the front door early.
But that was 50 years ago. Benfica’s then-manager, the Hungarian Bela Guttmann, left the club acrimoniously following that triumph and the European Cup has not been won again.
It is not because of a lack of effort or talent — Benfica have reached five finals since 1962 and lost them all. The last of these was in 1990, when Sven Goran Eriksson was the manager. AC Milan won 1-0 in Vienna courtesy of Frank Rijkaard.
After that, though, came the economic scandals of the 1990s, some of which are still just reaching court. Benfica’s wings were clipped.
Set in stone: Eusebio's exploits have been immortalised in this statue
Losing finalists — it is hardly a sought-after statistic. But it is a mark of pedigree — seven European Cup finals to Chelsea’s one and Manchester United’s five. And numbers matter at Benfica.
/03/25/article-2120208-12508BFE000005DC-237_468x286.jpg” width=”468″ height=”286″ alt=”Never before: Chelsea have not played Benfica competitively” class=”blkBorder” />
Never before: Chelsea have not played Benfica competitively
‘When I first joined, we went on tour to the US and played a friendly in New Jersey. The stadium held 80,000 people and it was full. It was the same in Boston a week later.’
Souness was manager at Estadio da Luz for two years from 1997, part of a British connection that stems back to the club’s foundation in 1904. Benfica’s founder, Cosme Damiao, was an Anglophile.
Under the former Sheffield United forward Jimmy Hagan, three of Benfica’s 32 league titles were won in a row from 1970. They also lost a European Cup semi-final to Johan Cruyff’s Ajax.
That founding meeting was held at a chemists, Franco Pharmacy. Sadly it no longer exists. There was soon a merger with a bicycle club, which is why there is a wheel as well as an eagle in the club crest.
At first, cycling was more prominent and the multi-sports aspect of Benfica can still be seen today: Benfica’s judo and shot put will be represented (via Portugal) at the Olympics.
Success at other sports is one reason why the club have amassed 22,000 trophies in 108 years. Upstairs in the stadium in the ‘Conservation Area’ these are being treated and catalogued by a staff of 18.
Strife: Benfica are having a few difficulties in their domestic league
The best 1,000 will be selected for the enhanced club museum, which is to be re-opened later this year. The oldest trophy, of a warrior on a horse, dates from 1911. It was awarded for a landmark first victory over an all-English team.
In the here and now, defeating the next English club in Lisbon is what matters. Chelsea will face a Benfica team which, like them, drew 0-0 at the weekend. The result left Benfica behind Porto on goal difference. It is better than last season when they finished 21 points behind Porto, then conquering all under Andre Villas-Boas.
In the group stage, when they drew twice with United, Benfica demonstrated current ability. But this is nevertheless a club curbed by Portugal’s economics — this Chelsea game was not sold out on Friday. Not too long ago tomorrow night would have been all about AVB and David Luiz.
Link: Benfica suffered a tragedy reminiscent of what happened with Fabrice Muamba, when Miklos Feher died
That Portuguese connection has been part-severed. But in the shape of the second bronze at the stadium there is another, tragic, link to modern England.
In January 2004, a 24-year-old striker from Hungary, Miklos Feher, collapsed on the pitch at Guimaraes. Unlike Fabrice Muamba, Feher did not recover after going to hospital.
Beside the bronze bust, in a glass case, is Feher’s Benfica jersey. It is ripped down the middle, where doctors had tried to re-start Feher’s heart.
It is a graphic, moving piece of Benfica’s history. This is a club that has known more than just Victory and Glory. It is part of the fabric of European football.