A Tale of One City: Lisbon

A Tale of One City: Lisbon

This feature is part of A Tale of One City

John O’Shea’s grimace said it all. As a wisp of bleached hair flicked past his sweat-lined brow, it was all he could do to manhandle the virtually unknown boy to the ground to avoid being humiliated yet again.

Despite having been crowned a champion of England months earlier, and having comfortably faced some of the world’s most fearsome strikers, here was a cheeky upstart with the complexion and physique of a schoolboy making mincemeat of him. In his defence, he was severely jet-lagged having flown in from New York for the official opening match at the Estádio José Alvalade XXI, and he was far from the only Manchester United player that night to be turned inside out by the scrawny number 28 who would go on to join the Red Devils on his way to conquering the world.

Contrary to popular myth, it was not the pleading of United’s squad on the flight home that made Sir Alex Ferguson part with a mere £12.6 million to acquire the services of Cristiano Ronaldo. The deal had already been struck the night before, thanks in no small part to Carlos Queiroz’s connections as former Sporting Clube de Portugal manager, in the seaside town of Cascais, where the royal family used to invite other aristocrats to holiday with them, and where the first football match on the mainland was held in 1888.

Back then, the boy from Madeira, named after former US president Ronald Reagan, was only dreaming of bronze statues and museums, and was striving to make his way on the mainland as part of the famous Sporting youth system, not sculpt his place in history. At least not yet.

The stage he had chosen to publicly announce himself to his new employers could not have been more appropriate; brand new, but dripping with the ethos of someone who believed from the beginning he could be the best. José Alvalade was a Harvard educated young man who wished to create a multi-sport organisation that would be “big, as big as the biggest in Europe”. The name tells the story: Sporting Clube de Portugal, no sign of the word football, or Lisbon. This was no small enterprise that was born in 1906 – although football was the key element of its setup, and remains so to this day.

Originally, some members of the short-lived Sport Club de Belas, which itself had only been founded in 1902, resurrected the organisation as Campo Grande Football Club in the capital’s Bijou Cake Shop in 1904, but after a couple more years a natural split developed between those who wished to use it for promoting their social life, and those who wanted to focus on the sport. On this note, the ambitious José Alvalade himself borrowed money from his wealthy grandparents to help establish a breakaway club along with over thirty other ‘dissidents’ on 15 April 1906. The colour of green signified hope, while the lion symbol was borrowed from the crest of Fernando Castelo Branco to represent strength and determination.


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While the Campo Grande Football Club was being set up, across the city in the back room of a pharmacy, a group of students from a school for the underprivileged and orphans, the Real Casa Pia de Lisboa, met to establish their own sports club, Sport Lisboa. Eighteen-year-old Cosme Damião, who would go on to manage the club for 18 years, presided over the meeting, where the colours of red and white, to represent bravery and peace, were chosen, along with an eagle to symbolise supremacy. Four years later, they merged with Grupo Sport Benfica to form the institution that has gone on to become the most successful in Portuguese football, and part of the most historic derby in the country.

The rivalry was stoked by the first ever encounter between the sides that took place in December 1907, won 2-1 by Os Leões after seven Benfica players had moved across to join them. Sport Lisboa e Benfica’s mud pitch at Terras do Desembargador didn’t match up to the facilities that were on offer at Sporting’s Sítios das Mouras, said to be the best in Portugal at the time.

The origins of Sporting Clube de Portugal were steeped in the privileged classes; King Carlos I bestowed the title of Viscount de Alvalade on José’s wealthy grandfather, and the monarch himself attended the only match of Sport Club de Belas in 1902. This background of entitlement leaves little surprise that only the best would do for the founders of the club.

The lack of opportunities for youngsters to play organised sport came from the archaic rules of one of the very first football clubs in the country, Clube Lisbonense that was reserved only for the aristocratic classes throughout the year. Even the first ever recorded game on the mainland in 1888 – Madeira hosted the first in Portugal, set up by students who had returned from England in 1875 – was organised by Guilherme Ferreira Pinto Basto, who was also educated in England, was Consul General to Denmark for 39 years, and received royal commendations from France, Iceland and Denmark.

Sport Lisboa merged a year after that first game with Grupo Benfica, whose main sport had been cycling (hence the wheel added to the club crest), partly to redress the imbalance in facilities. It was hardly befitting of a club that had an eagle gloriously looking out from above the colours of bravery and peace to lose seven members to their rivals before they had fought their first battle against each other. It wasn’t until 1913 that they even played on grass, and after four years of struggling to afford the rent at the Campo do Siete Rios, they moved to their own field, before finally moving into a stadium they could call their own, the Estádio das Amoreiras, in 1925.

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Read  |  Sporting CP’s legendary Cinco Violinos

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With their home settled, they got down to business, claiming the first of a record 73 domestic trophies. The inaugural Portuguese league took place in 1934-35; Benfica finished third but As Águias then went on to claim a hat-trick of titles to kick-start their dominance. Prior to the creation of the league, the Campeonato de Portugal, a straight knockout competition had decided the national champions, with entrants drawn from the winners of regional leagues. Sporting drew first blood by claiming the national crown in the 1922-23 season, but it was Benfica who dominated the Lisbon Championship at the start, winning seven of the first ten official titles. Admittedly, they were not up against a huge number of opponents, with five or six teams competing on average, but after 28 of the 40 titles contested were won by Benfica and Sporting, the dominance of the capital’s big two was clear.


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In 1926, a military cup was successfully staged by General Manuel de Oliveira Gomes da Costa, ousting the republican government that had been in place since the assassination of King Carlos and his heir Luís Felipe in 1908. He appointed António de Oliveira Salazar as finance minister in 1928, and four years later Gomes da Costa was replaced as prime minister by the former University of Coimbra lecturer to begin nearly forty years of austere dictatorship.

One part of life Salazar endorsed was football, as part of his Fado, Fatima and Fútbol credo: Fado is a popular type of Portuguese folk music, Fatima is a shrine where the Virgin Mary is believed to have appeared to three peasant children, while Fútbol needs no introduction. Salazar, like so many political leaders before him and since, realised that to ensure his own stability he needed to align himself with some already popular elements of society, and there was no better way than to encourage the participation in the most popular sport to distract people from the desperate economic situation the country found itself in during his reign.

Joel Amorim is a football writer who explained to me the cunning portrayal of popularity by Salazar’s dictatorship: “It is fair to say that football was an important part of Salazar’s dictatorial regime,” he said, “as it was used to distract the masses from what was really happening in the country. The ‘Three Fs’ were a mark of Salazar’s regimes and the model of life he portrayed to Portuguese society. Football, music and religion were the pillars of a well-structured dictatorial regime that together with the security services PIDE (International and State Defence Police), restrained and inflicted an almost deadly blow to the country’s development for almost half a century.”

Statistics usually only tell half the story, but they are significant when studying the history of Primeira Liga winners since Salazar came to power. In the 80-year history of the competition, only two teams outside ‘The Big Three’ of Sporting, Benfica and Porto have ever won the title; Belenenses in 1946, and Boavista in 2001. During the dictatorship, however, it was the Lisbon teams that completely dominated, with Porto only breaking the Benfica-Sporting duopoly three times in the 30s and twice in the 50s. “Salazar and his partners had a huge predilection for the Lisbon teams, Benfica in particular,” adds Amorim. “If one has a closer look at the titles Sporting and Benfica won the dictatorial period, it is not difficult to imagine that they enjoyed some sort of ‘inclination’ from the people in charge of the country’s destiny.”


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The post-war period saw legendary players for both clubs intensify the battle for supremacy. Portugal’s African colonies of Angola, Mozambique, the Cape Varde Islands and Sao Tomé and Principe provided a stream of returning second or third generation Portuguese nationals who would go on to revolutionise the domestic game in the 1980s after the Revolução dos Cravos in 1974.

During the Second World War, in which Portugal was officially neutral and whose domestic football program continued, Sporting’s legendary quintet Os Cincos Violinos began to form. Fernando Peyroteo joined in 1937 and went on to plunder more than three goals every two games, something even Cristiano Ronaldo can’t manage today, although admittedly in the days of only two full-backs and a barely professional league, Peyroteo’s feats were considerably more possible. Born in Luanda, Angola’s oil-rich capital, the focal point of the iconic forward line faced his club’s great rivals Benfica on the last day of the 1948 season needing to win by three clear goals to claim the championship. A convalescent Peyroteo plundered all four title-winning goals.

Joined by António Jesus Correia, who quit football at the age of 28 to pursue his roller hockey career and went on to win six world championships in his other sport, Albano Narciso Pereira, Jose Travassos and Manuel Vasques, the Five Violins amassed an incredible 1,218 league goals between them, and countless more in friendlies and other competitions. After Peyroteo retired relatively early at the age of 31, he returned to his native Angola before being offered the position of Portuguese national team manager in 1961. It was a disastrous spell for the Sporting legend, as his two matches in charge included a 4-2 defeat in Luxembourg in a European Championships qualifier, after which he was dismissed.

In that game, however, he did do one thing of note – he handed an international debut to a muscular young forward with the physique of Peyroteo himself in his prime. The 19-year-old Mozambican netted a consolation eight minutes from time, but would go on to score an eye-watering 749 club goals in 745 matches and receive nicknames such as ‘The Black Panther’, ‘The Black Pearl’, or just simply ‘The King’. Eusébio’s career had begun.

Older English fans will remember him for his exploits at the World Cup in 1966 where he scored nine goals, including two to knock out world champions Brazil, four to single-handedly overturn North Korea’s stunning 3-0 25-minute lead, and one in the semi-final against the hosts. Nobby Stiles and Sir Bobby Charlton faced him two years later at Wembley in the European Cup final for Manchester United as Alex Stepney’s instinctive one-on-one save denied Eusébio the winner in the closing moments of normal time, before George Best, Brian Kidd and Charlton prevented a third Benfica title of the decade in extra time.

Two Hungarian coaches around this time characterised the rivalry: József Szabó, and Belá Guttman. Szabó had a long career in Portugal, coaching for nearly forty years, and had arrived at Sporting the year before Peyroteo joined from Angola. A visionary coach, he believed in specific training regimes for specific players, paying attention to the physical attributes he believed each player needed to get the most out of his potential. Although he only claimed two national titles during his eight-and-a-half seasons in charge, his attitude to preparation reinvigorated the club and preceded an incredible run of seven Primeira Liga wins in eight years from 1947.

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eusebio benfica

Read  |  The unique relationship between Benfica and Portugal’s politics

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Guttman achieved greater success more quickly. A nomadic career saw the Jewish Hungarian coach rarely stay longer than a couple of seasons wherever he went, but his Midas touch sparkled in Lisbon. Having won the Portuguese title in 1959 with Porto, he promptly completed a hat-trick with a further two titles when he moved south to the newly opened Estádio da Luz. Not content with piling up the domestic silverware, Guttman became the first coach to break Real Madrid’s monopoly on the European Cup by lifting the trophy in 1961 and 1962. Understandably, Guttman felt he deserved a pay rise for bringing such glory to the Eagles, but after his demands were rejected he angrily proclaimed: “Not in a hundred years from now will Benfica ever be European champions again.”

This became known as ‘The Guttman Curse’; whether you believe in the supernatural or not, Benfica have been involved in eight European finals since, and have lost all of them. “Honestly, I don’t believe in such a thing,” said Amorim, “but I guess it has been somehow producing a negative effect on the minds of Benfica’s players when they reach international finals, and they are teased with it almost on a daily basis.”

While Benfica have suffered from an inability to close out continental campaigns, they had little trouble continuing their march through the domestic scene in the sixties and seventies as they swept up 14 of the 20 titles on offer in those two decades. But whereas before it had mostly been Sporting who provided their competition, a new breed of manager in the north arrived and changed the dynamic of the relationship between the two Lisbon giants.


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Jose Maria Pedroto had originally been appointed manager of Porto in 1966, when he stayed for three seasons and won a Taça de Portugal trophy without pulling up trees. It was his second spell exactly a decade later that really changed the outlook of Portuguese football – he claimed two consecutive titles in 1978 and 1979, breaking a 19-year-long Primeira Liga drought, as well as adding another Taça de Portugal victory.

It was the manner of his outspoken criticism of what he saw as centralism, along with his boardroom ally Jorge Nuno Pinto da Costa that stoked the flames between the big three. “The relationship between these three giants was never easy,” explains Amorim. “But during the dictatorship, Porto never managed to counter the superiority of the Lisbon giants … they failed to offer fierce competition. Nevertheless, the arrival of Pedroto, probably the best manager in Portuguese football history, changed the country’s panorama forever and aggravated animosities further.”

As with many derbies, it is not simply a straight tale of two opposing factions, but a more delicate picture painted with many brushes. Just as the arrival of new money in St. Petersburg transformed the Russian football landscape, the combination of Peroto’s educated background – he was the first Portuguese manager to hold a degree, and one of the first to attend a management training course – and his drive to not let Sporting and Benfica stroll to success virtually unopposed, forced Lisbon’s great rivals into starker contrast.

“The Lisbon clubs have, in the past, ganged up against Porto, filing lawsuits and often accusing their team of unlawful conduct in an attempt to undermine the club’s hegemony,” explains Amorim. “Today, however, Sporting’s new chairman [Jaime Marta Soares] seems to be fully committed to attacking Benfica with every chance he has, which shows that the rise of Porto did affect the relationship between the Lisbon clubs.”

In the season when Porto went on to win their first European Cup in 1987, Sporting found time to humiliate their city rivals in one of the classic derbies, as Manuel Fernandes smashed four in a 7-1 home rout of Benfica, still their record defeat. In 1994, a João Vieira Pinto-inspired visiting side returned the favour 6-3, again at the José Alvalade stadium. Pinto later signed for Sporting at the turn of the millennium, playing a total of 335 games and scoring 92 goals in the league alone for both sides.

Sir Bobby Robson managed Sporting just before Pinto hit a hat-trick in the famous 6-3 win, where a young José Mourinho worked as his assistant and translator, before Robson was sacked in December 1993, despite having led the club to the top of the table. This desperation to achieve success has been heightened by the concentration of competition – only Boavista in 2001 have broken the Big Three’s domination of the league title in the last 66 years.

Mourinho’s Midas touch has been just one part of the Porto story over the last quarter of a century; without question, the northerners have become the team to beat, claiming 20 of the last 30 titles contested. But the heart and soul of the Lisbon derby may well have been saved by this very success.


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As much as Sporting and Benfica may hate to admit it, they have a lot more in common than they’d perhaps like, which has given an edge to derby games that is unique to their city. Sporting’s phenomenal youth system – producing the likes of Ronaldo, Nani, Paulo Futre, Figo, William Carvalho, João Moutinho – has ensured that there have always been some players who have grown up understanding what the derby means, despite the vast influx of Brazilians. Benfica, too, have had their fair share of notable graduates: Maniche, João Pereira, Rui Costa and Paulo Sousa.

While Sporting and Benfica may both look back to greater former glories, at least one side will know they have produced a man who now stands astride the world, just as their founder hoped they would do.

By Andrew Flint. Follow @AndrewMijFlint