Benfica and Portugal’s politics: a relationship impossible to separate

Benfica and Portugal’s politics: a relationship impossible to separate

Although there were still several hours left until the game would actually begin, thousands were already gathering outside Benfica’s home, the Estádio da Luz, by Eusébio’s bronze statue. There were people coming from all over the country, from the Douro region in the north, from the Algarve in the south, from the Azores in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, as well as from all over the world, from Toulouse in France and Toronto in Canada.

After losing by one goal in Munich in the first leg of the quarter-finals against Bayern, Benfica had managed to keep their hopes of advancing to the next stage alive. Even if they knew their team was facing one of the best in the world in the Pep Guardiola-managed German powerhouse, the fact that in the Portuguese league Benfica had overcome the inauspicious start of the season – new coach Rui Vitória heard calls for his dismissal even before the preseason had given way to competitive matches – and was now in the lead and on the verge of winning the title with only five games to go, gave the club’s supporters cause to be enthusiastic about their prospects.

Holding their own the previous week in Munich, when many expected a humiliating barrage of goals by the home team, seemed to have confirmed the rightness of their state of mind. Or at least so they thought.

“I have faith,” said one of the fans sitting by Eusébio’s statue. “They’re a great team, I know, but it is possible to defeat them,” said another. An elderly woman said, “It’s going to be difficult, but it’s going to be alright.” Her husband said, “We just need a little bit of luck”.

“We’re gonna win 3-0,” said a man who swore Benfica were going to face Real Madrid in the final. Another one said Benfica had been “robbed” by the referee in the first leg, because he was from ‘Polackia’ – he meant Poland – and that country “had the trauma of being invaded in World War Two.”  Why a man from ‘Polackia’ would illicitly benefit Bayern because his country had been invaded by Germany in 1939 was left without explanation, not because the man had no interest in continuing with his lecture – he had plenty of that – but because there was no sense to his theory to begin with.

Back in January, when Benfica hosted FC Porto for their 22nd game in the Portuguese league, the stadium’s giant screen began to play a video documenting Benfica’s past greatness and present hopes. It was what, if it were in the political arena, would be unashamedly termed propaganda, but because this was football, it was considered motivation – meaning and the words to translate it proved relative in the unlikeliest scenario for such a heavy philosophical endeavour.

Watching the game on TV, it wasn’t clear if this time the video made another appearance or not, but before both teams entered the pitch, the red inferno of the Benfiquistas in the stands sang the club’s anthem, until the Champions League one began to play just before the teams were finally allowed to do the same.

Bayern kicked-off, immediately pressured by the home team’s players. Both sides pushed to score as early as possible, but neither was able to break through the other’s defence. Benfica had the first chance, a free-kick by Eliseu, but it did more to excite the fans than to actually scare Bayern’s goalkeeper. As usual, Bayern passed the ball around between their starting 11 players and – or so it seemed – a few extra ones. It might have seemed sterile possession, but it had one very clear purpose, entirely fulfilled: to keep the ball away from Benfica, who needed to score – twice, and even that only if it didn’t concede any goal – in order to advance.

On the 26th-minute mark, Benfica did score: Eliseu, the left-back, received the ball near the middle of the field and charged ahead, before crossing the ball to Raúl Jiménez. Even though he found himself between two Bayern defenders and their goalkeeper, he managed to head the ball into the back of the net. Benfiquistas began to dream that maybe it was possible to overcome Bayern and progress to the semi-finals. A few minutes later, Jiménez had another chance to score, but his control of the pass was poorly executed, and Neuer was well positioned to negate his efforts.

In 1965, in the March/April issue of the now obsolete journal O Tempo e o Modo, the anthropologist-later-turned-diplomat José Cutileiro published an essay titled ‘Os Super-Portugueses: Algumas Notas sobre o Sport Lisboa e Benfica’ – that is, Super-Portuguese: Some Notes on Benfica, in which he tried to understand the club and the way it operated. He was particularly drawn to the Lar do Jogador – the ‘Players’ Home’ – the dormitory where some of the club’s players lived and the others stayed for most of the week.

“The players,” Cutileiro wrote, “are segregated by the club from their private environments and live in their own community. The married ones are concentrated (as in “concentration camp”, I should clarify, not as in “focused”) in the Lar from Thursday after practice to Sunday after the match, but even in the days they spend with their families their lives are controlled: they can’t, for example, go to the movies at night.


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“Benfica’s single players,” Cutileiro added, “live in the Lar where there was no individual rooms or heating, and the furniture belongs in a second-rate country inn. There they must lunch and have dinner and should be in bed by 10pm every night.”

Cutileiro didn’t hide his disgust for the nature of the arrangement. The word “segregated” was repeatedly used throughout the essay, as if to equate, in the reader’s mind, the treatment of the players to that of discriminated ethnic groups in less progressive countries or mere animals in a zoo. “In this community of young males, segregated,” – here’s that word again, its damning purpose as clear as could be – “as much as possible from the rest of the world, there are many problems. The anomalous living conditions, the weekly repeated emotional stress of the matches, the disparity between the achieved celebrity and the real social situation, and the certainty that, in the age at which in other professions one begins to achieve eminence and the fruits that it bears, one will have to hang its cleats, turn each player into a neurotic case.”

The whole system seemed inhumane to Cutileiro, not only in its effect but in its design. Players were controlled in their sleeping hours, in what they eat and drank, in their love lives and their travels. They were “deprived of the minimum of solitude necessary to a certain degree of tranquility”.

The “director” addressed them as Tu – meaning ‘you’ but in a less formal manner than você – while the players had to call him senhor. In Cutileiro’s description of the Lar’s way of life, it resembles a totalitarian state, and the comparison does not seem misplaced: according to him, one day, the director at the time, upset with a private problem, arrived at 9pm and sent everyone to bed, one hour before what the rules dictated. “And they did,” Cutileiro says, “They were at the mercy of the whims of those in charge.” Like in a totalitarian state.

There’s no better example of the brutal, despotic way in which Benfica operated at the time than the story, told by Cutileiro, of Félix, whom he describes as “one of the best central midfielders of all time in Portuguese football”. Félix wanted a salary raise, but the club refused it. Later, they accused him of, Cutileiro says, voluntarily contributing to two goals being scored in his own goal; Benfica punished him by suspending him”for an indefinite period but without releasing him from his commitment to the club, meaning that it prevented him not only from looking for another club but also from dedicating himself to another profession. “When the punishment was over,” Cutileiro concludes, “Félix was himself done.”

In a sense, Benfica, its Lar and its rules were simply a mirror of the rural, poor, developmentally arrested and closed society of 1965 Portugal. In the 19th century the country had enjoyed a somewhat liberal, constitutional monarchy. But unfortunately – for those who lived it and perhaps especially for those who came after – that largely benign regime was never able to fully establish itself. It lacked a way to legitimise itself and the political class it produced.

The regime wanted to be a true community of free citizens participating in the political life of the state, but it simply didn’t have enough citizens who were up to the task: most of the population was illiterate, especially outside of the urban areas, and both the ruling class and the more radical groups that wanted to further democratise the country mistrusted this large group of people that could easily be manipulated by local grandees or priests.

As a result, the regime alternated between restricting the vote keeping large parts of the population out of political participation, and enlarging the franchise in order to ensure that the rural “sheep” could be herded to vote for the “right” candidates, while at the same time using the sheer number of votes that these “sheep” amounted to as a means to drown the more radical urban vote, cooking up every election. The parliament and the governments that emanated from it were consequently never seen as a legitimate representation of the nation’s will, but simply as a product of the machinations of a political class that seldom went outside of a few Lisbon neighbourhoods.

The problem worsened as the size or the urban population grew in relation to that of the rural regions (after 1878, Lisbon had about 57 percent of the population), with the more “illustrated” sector of society increasingly resenting the weight of the “sheep” votes and how they allowed an ever more discredited political class to perpetuate itself.

In 1906, the king himself tried to find a solution to the problem, suspending – temporarily – the parliament and placing João Franco, a darling of the poor urban electorate, and an outsider of the regime’s two main and alternating parties, in power. The experiment was successful in destroying the party system – four years later, those two main parties had splintered into several warring factions – but powerless to quell the dissatisfaction of the more radical fringes of that urban electorate. In the end, it resulted in the king being assassinated by republican terrorists and, in 1910, with the Monarchy itself overthrown by a republican coup.

The difficulties of ruling a country divided between an urban, radical, anti-religious, relatively small section of the population, and a rural, conservative, illiterate, deeply Catholic but large section of that same population, did not disappear along with the monarchy. The republic just came up with another way to try deal with them: with what amounted to a terrorist dictatorship of the radical faction against the rest of the country. The outcome was the same, though: the regime had no way to survive in the long term. If the liberals had found out that it was impossible to govern the country without the favour of an armed, radicalised section of the capital city, the Republicans discovered that the latter also couldn’t govern without the tolerance of the former.

There was only one alternative solution left, one that António de Oliveira Salazar would begin to put into practice in 1928 and would prove successful until 1974, even after its creator’s death: a dictatorship of the conservative, Catholic Portugal over the more urban and radical sections of the country’s population.

In 1928, two years after destroying the republic, the army called Salazar to become the government’s Finance Minister and solve the budget crisis they were facing. Salazar, the son of a small, poor village in the mountainous nowhere of the country’s hinterland, and raised in a Catholic seminary, demanded power over every governmental department as a condition for his acceptance, and the army gave him that power, of which he never – or so it would seem – let go.

SalazarAntónio de Oliveira Salazar

By 1932, he had made himself Prime Minister and immediately arranged to consolidate his power by drafting a constitution that would make his will into law: it banned political parties, and although the president nominally had the power to nominate and exonerate the Prime Minister, in effect it was Salazar who – taking into account the balance of power within the regime’s ruling class – selected the president; it didn’t safeguard any political freedoms, and although it did allow for the right to resist orders that violate individual guarantees, it established censorship and a political police that tortured and murdered opponents of the regime if it so wanted to.

“What I propose to do,” Salazar once said, “is to make Portugal live habitually.” In other words, Salazar wanted Portugal to be a peaceful country, untroubled by change or controversy, and used the government as an instrument to protect and keep the status quo as unaltered as possible, in order to avoid the revolutions the rest of the continent was witnessing. And so he “protected” Portugal from foreign investment, Portuguese producers from competition and the country as a whole from the supposedly disturbing effects of free political debate.

This was enough to keep him in power until illness struck him in 1968 (he died a year later), but did little to improve the lives of the Portuguese people.

In 1954, Marcello Caetano – the man who would substitute Salazar as prime minister of the regime he had created – visited the northern regions of the country and found “much poverty, extremely low salaries … and minors’ exploitation”. In the 1960s, in many parts of the country, people could only eat meat or fish once a week, and most families had no running water or sewage disposal systems. Decades later, the great historian and columnist Vasco Pulido Valente, a colleague of Cutileiro at O Tempo e o Modo, recalled how in his childhood, Lisbon was filled with young girls from small villages working in the city as maids for the more wealthy (and yet still relatively poor) families, earning miserable salaries, eating their employer’s leftovers, being subjected to physical punishment if their “behaviour” wasn’t proper (in other words, if they were seen with a boy), and allowed to leave their employer’s houses only every fortnight.

In Magoito, one of those small villages and the one where Valente used to vacation, just about 20 or 30 kilometres outside of Lisbon, “it was the end of the world”: most of its population had never gone anywhere unless they were young men and had been called to serve in the Army; “electricity and running water were two things no one had even heard of”. Men “became old at 40, and women at 30”.

No wonder people left the country. Between 1960 and 1970, Portugal’s population decreased for the first time since the early 19th century as thousands emigrated to France, Germany, Switzerland, Brazil or the United States. In France, the Portuguese ambassador at the time told Salazar people could earn six times what they earned in Portugal for the same job, and so leaving was a natural choice. Even Eusébio stayed in the country only because the regime didn’t sanction his transfer to Real Madrid or Juventus, who were after him: “Benfica must have talked with Salazar,” Eusébio would later say, “and he called for me and told me I couldn’t leave the country, because I was an asset of the State.”

The truth was that Benfica and its players – Eusébio among them, and chiefly so – had become an extraordinary propaganda tool for a regime that claimed to be a “proudly alone” imperial dictatorship in a Western world full of democracies and with receding empires.

Founded in 1904, Benfica had quickly established itself as one of Portugal’s bigger and more popular football clubs. After 1954 and the hiring of Brazilian coach Otto Glória, it began to turn into one of the most successful ones in the whole of Europe. In December of that year, the original Estádio da Luz was inaugurated after about 18 months under construction; the Lar do Jogador had been established in order to provide structure to the players and allow the medical staff to monitor the former closer; but it was the signing of Glória that, giving ammunition to proponents of the nominative determinism – his family name meaning “glory” in Portuguese – allowed Benfica to achieve what it would in the following years.

Introducing tactical innovations to Portuguese football – the famous Brazilian diagonal, a W-M/4-2-4 hybrid in which one of the central midfielders dropped into the middle of the defence, and one of the inside-forwards dropped back into the midfield – and establishing better training methods, Glória was instrumental to Benfica’s professionalisation and ensuing triumphs. Before the 1959-60 season, Glória would move to Belenenses, but by then he had – apart from winning several national championship titles, Portuguese Cups and even a Latin Cup – laid the foundations upon which the great Béla Guttman would build.

The Hungarian coach, who had won the Portuguese title the previous season with Porto, was a Jewish former centre-half who played in his native country – Austria – and in the United States. In 1932, he came back to Vienna to coach the club he had played for, Hakoah, before leaving for the Netherlands. Two years later, he was back at Hakoah, Vienna’s Jewish community’s club, and again had to leave when the country was annexed by Nazi Germany.

In 1964, when he wrote his autobiography, he dispensed with the experience in two sentences, saying that because “countless books have been written about the destructive years of struggle between life and death, it would be superfluous to trouble the readers with such details”. It was himself, though, whom he did not wish to trouble with the recollections of a period that took his brother away, murdered in a Nazi concentration camp.

After the war he coached in Hungary, Romania, Italy, Argentina, Cyprus and Brazil. It was there that Porto snatched him away, and after his successful stay with the club, Benfica made sure that if he was going to win titles in Portugal, he would do it with themselves and not their rivals. With him, Guttman brought the Hungarian 4-2-4, an extremely fluid system built on “passing, passing again and shooting”, and on players exchanging positions as they progressed through the field in order to find spaces in the middle of the opponent’s defence

In his first season with Benfica, Guttman immediately won the national title. As a result, Benfica would compete in the 1960-61 season of the European Champions Cup (now called the Champions League) and win it. After overcoming Hearts, Ujpest, Aarhus, Rapid Vienna, the Eagles travelled to Bern, where they faced Barcelona in the Cup’s final. With three goals and some luck (Barcelona hit the posts three different times in the last 15 minutes), Benfica became the first club to wrestle the title away from Real Madrid.

Ironically it would be Real who Benfica would face the following year, in Amsterdam, in that season’s Champions Cup final. Puskás – another Hungarian – scored twice for Real, but, after 34 minutes, José Augusto and Cavém had managed to tie the game. Puskas would then score his third, but two Benfica greats would turn things around in the second half: Coluna tied the match 3-3 and Eusébio scored two other goals, setting the final score.

After the season was over, Guttman left the club. He was replaced by Fernando Riera, who led the club to another Champions Cup final in 1963, losing to AC Milan at Wembley. Riera, despite winning the Portuguese title, left the club, replaced by the Hungarian Lajos Czeiler, who was then replaced by the Swedish Elek Schwartz, who would take Benfica back to a European final in his debut season. In 1965, the year Cutileiro visited Lar do Jogador, Benfica faced Inter at San Siro, losing 1-0.


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By 1968, Otto Glória returned to the club as they marched to a European final, once more at Wembley but this time against Manchester United. Defeated by the Red Devils, Benfica’s players and fans couldn’t help but recall Bela Guttman and the “curse” he supposedly cast upon the club when he left: “Without me, Benfica will never again become a European champion in a hundred years.” Yet those losses so close to triumph masked an immense success: after all, to lose so many European finals one must first get there, and it was far from easy to get there so many times.

Benfica was a useful propaganda tool not only because of its international success, but because it achieved such triumphs with a team of exclusively Portuguese players. That, however, was true only in a sense. Some of the players – and some of the great ones, like Eusébio and Coluna – were Portuguese then, but wouldn’t be so now, simply because they had been born in the African countries that were, but no longer are, a part of the Portuguese Empire. The club wasn’t just a mirror image of Portugal at the time; its success was only possible because the country was what it was – a conservative, parochial dictatorship with an overseas empire. When the country changed and the empire disappeared, so did the circumstances that allowed Benfica to turn into the European power it was in the 1960s.

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s tempting to say Jiménez’s wasted opportunity right after his opening goal might have sealed Benfica’s fate. Afterwards, Bayern were able to slow down the game, and by the 37th minute to tie the score. Philipp Lahm found enough space to cross into the middle of the area; Ederson, Benfica’s goalkeeper, punched the ball away, but it fell at the feet of Arturo Vidal right outside the penalty-box, and he didn’t hesitate to direct it into the goal. The home team now had to score an extra two goals, and, even though they were playing well, that would have been too much to ask of them.

In fact it was Bayern who scored next, when a corner kick by Xabi Alonso found Javi Martínez on the far post, who headed the ball back across goal where Müller – and two extra Bayern players just in case he missed – nudged it into the goal to seal their advancement to the next stage.

In the stands, the crowd had quieted down. As the clock ticked away, there was less and less time for Benfica to get the goals they needed, and their hopes slimmed down in proportion. Bayern continued to pass the ball around, cleverly keeping it from the home team, forcing them to run after it, exhausting the strengths tiredness was already taking away from them.

In 1988, Portuguese journalist and writer Miguel Esteves Cardoso was invited by Benfica to go to Stuttgart to watch the Champions League final against PSV Eindhoven. In his final article, A Aventura do Benfica, he wrote about the experience and recalled the flight from Lisbon to the final’s venue city: “The Portuguese, while in the air, become ultra-Portuguese,” he said. “All their flaws and qualities become greater until they reach the level commonly referred to as ‘unbearable’.”

“The moment we lifted off Lisbon,” Cardoso wrote, “a gentleman from Alentejo (a poor region in the country’s south) proclaimed from the back of the plane: ‘It’s the first time I’m in one of these shits’.” The passenger seated beside Cardoso spilt an orange juice on his pants – Cardoso’s, not his temporary neighbour’s – and immediately proceeded to tell him “what’s a little juice between Benfiquistas?”, apparently without even thinking of apologising.

Another passenger recognised Cardoso: “Look, it’s the pantomimist! It’s the anarchist who’s around talking shit on TV.” Cardoso’s neighbour turned to the flight attendant to refuse the glass of milk she had offered him. “My doctor doesn’t let me have white drinks.”

Another one pointed to Cardoso and yelled, “The motherfucker’s left-handed.”

“The word ‘motherfucker’ had already been introduced and from then on it was never retired,” Cardoso lamented. At one point, the captain asked the passengers to sit down several times on account of the turbulence the flight was facing, never to any avail: the man from Alentejo even found it amusing to loudly exclaim, presumably to the captain who could not hear him, “stop shaking this shit around!”.

“Tighten your seatbelts,” someone said through the speaker. “I’m already tired of tightening my belt,” a passenger replied, making a joke about the financial difficulties the country had gone through a few years earlier.

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Two days later, at the game, Cardoso was seated with several Benfiquistas: “They’re passive hooligans,” he noted. “They use violence against themselves. They torture themselves. After 15 minutes in their midst, I was already suffering. I’m still suffering.”

Benfica and their fans suffered throughout the game, which their team would lose in a penalty shootout. They had also suffered for 20 years before their club was back in a European final. In 1970, after Glória left, the club hired Jimmy Hagan to coach the team, and his hard training methods made an impression on his players. Vítor Baptista – who, it should be noted, was known for his troubles with drugs and alcohol – complained that he “always ended up throwing up the day’s breakfast in the morning training sessions”.

They paid off, though, as Benfica won three consecutive national championships and would reach the Champions Cup semi-finals. After he left, Milorad Pavić, Mario Wilson and John Mortimore would give the club another three consecutive titles. After that, José Maria Pedroto’s Porto began to rival Benfica on the national stage. But then, from the European north, came a Swedish coach that would return Benfica to both national and international glory – or at least close to it.

Sven-Göran Eriksson had won the UEFA Cup with IFK Göteborg but was still an unknown quantity when he was hired by the club prior to the 1982-83 season. His work was to change not only Benfica, but Portuguese football.

An admirer of British football who had the privilege of studying both Bobby Robson at Ipswich and Bob Paisley at Liverpool, Eriksson introduced modern training methods to the country and was determined to both harness what Portuguese players could do well and improve what they couldn’t. Indeed, in the previous decade Pedroto had said that Portuguese football lacked 30 metres, and Eriksson was sure he could add those to Benfica’s repertoire. With better fitness and more attacking directness, Benfica could still take advantage of the classic Portuguese build-up skill but combine it with a better offensive efficiency.

Eriksson’s 4-4-2 was built on pressing and players covering for each other, making sure that if the team happened to lose possession they wouldn’t be left vulnerable to the opponent’s counter-attacks. In that first season, Benfica won both the league title and the cup, and reached the UEFA Cup final, losing to Anderlecht.

The following season Eriksson once again brought home the national title, but he became too big for the small Portuguese league and left for Italy. Four years later, Toni, a former player, and Eriksson’s handpicked assistant coach (he was “a thinker” who “lived for football” and spoke English, Eriksson would later recall), was handed the reins of the team and guided them to the game in Stuttgart. Benfica lost but were once again back where the supporters felt they belonged. Two years later, with Eriksson back at the helm, Benfica would go to Vienna to face AC Milan in another European Champions Cup final, once again losing, but not without proving they were worthy of having reached that stage.

Without their two starting forwards, Jonas and Mitroglou, and left-winger Nico Gaitan, perhaps the club’s best player, Benfica chose to forego the 4-4-2 in which they usually align and opted for a 4-2-3-1 instead, with Jiménez as the lone striker, Carcela and Salvio as the wide men, and Pizzi in between them, often joining Jiménez to form a two-man partnership at the head of Benfica’s attack. Bayern controlled possession of the ball for most of the game but Benfica defended deep with three compact lines and closed the middle of the field, trying to go quickly on the counter-attack whenever the team managed to get the ball back.

Bayern, on the other hand, displayed an extremely fluid alignment, designed to open up as many passing lanes as they could for themselves and to deny them to their opponents. Alonso, who sat ahead of the defence when Benfica had the ball, dropped between the two centre-backs – Martínez and Kimmich, both central midfielders-turned-defenders – forming a three-man line and leaving Thiago Alcantara and Vidal shuttling back and forth in the middle.

Müller, theoretically the furthest-positioned player for Bayern, frequently dropped deep into the midfield or slipped to the sides, trying to open up space in the Benfica defence. The two full-backs were only nominally so, with Lahm running into the area from the inside right and Alaba from the inside left, going wide on the rarest instances when the two wingers – Ribéry on the left and Costa on the right – drifted inside.

It was a thing of beauty. Bayern are more than a mere football team. They are a body of independent but yet connected organisms, each of them orchestrated to move in relation to the others’ movements. To watch them play is to see how much the game has changed since Cutileiro visited Benfica’s Lar, and even from the way it was played when Cardoso went to Stuttgart to see it lose yet another European final.

To watch Benfica facing Inter in 1965 is, well, boring. Even the much more entertaining 1968 Benfica-Manchester United looks dull when compared to the least captivating of today’s matches. Back then, players were less fit, their skills were less developed by professional and scientific methods of training, and they were on average less athletically gifted than today’s players. They were slower.

The game itself was slower: players were afforded more time with the ball at their feet by their opponents, thus having more time to decide what to do with it. Even against Inter’s Catenaccio, there was more space for players to run and pass throughout the field than what an average team concedes nowadays. Today, the game is more tactically complex and demanding, with greater more positional changes between players and more intricate team organisation, both offensively and defensively.

But some things changed too much for some supporters. In the 1980s, Benfica’s associates voted in favour of a proposal to allow the club to begin hiring foreign players: “I’ve always been a Benfiquista and will always be a Benfiquista,” the Portuguese writer José Cardoso Pires once said. “But we’re making a big mistake: Benfica was once proud to field only Portuguese players and now we’re witnessing a Brazilian colonisation.”

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Ever since, many have claimed that the club’s mystique had been lost by hiring non-Portuguese players who felt no “love for the shirt”. This culminated in, on September 3 2001, in a match against Trabzonspor in Istanbul, Benfica having a starting 11 of only foreign players, to the dismay of nostalgists of yesteryear.

Benfica changed because Portugal had changed too. In the Empire that gave so many great players to the Estádio da Luz, the country was fighting an unpopular war to keep Angola, Moçambique and Guiné in its hands, and the war effort led to the end of the dictatorship as the military would rather overthrow the regime than to remain in Africa.

Between April 1974 and November 1975, it was hard to see whether Portugal would become a democracy or if a socialist dictatorship would replace the previous one. In the end, democracy won, not without some difficulties, especially in the financial realm. Before the more moderate faction of the military stopped a far-left coup in November 1975, the communists were very much in control of the provisional government, and so were able to nationalise banks, insurance companies and raise salaries for government employees.

In 1978, with the first democratically elected government in office, the bill was too high for the country’s treasury, and so the IMF had to come and bail it out. And since the government that came after it in 1980 again increased salaries and public spending, once more emptying the country’s coffers, it was again necessary to call the IMF; as a result, between 1983 and 1984, a series of harsh policies had to be enacted.

But just like Benfica had to replace the players that used to come from Portugal Imperial provinces with players from other countries, Portugal itself had to replace the markets it had in those territories with other alternatives, and saw in joining Europe (at the time, the European Economic Community that would later become the European Union) a way to obtain the resources the country wasn’t able to generate by itself.

Since 1986 – when it was officially included in the organisation – money poured in, and Portugal became a much more prosperous country: in 1986, its GDP was 55.1 percent of the European average; by 1998, it was already at 72.5 percent. People became better educated, had improved living conditions and became more comfortable. Everyone – or so it seemed – had more money in their pockets, and believed they could spend it, buying houses, cars, TVs, more houses, and second cars.

And yet Portugal was still relatively poor when compared with other European countries, and its football clubs less powerful than those in Italy, Germany, England, Spain or France, so the best of its players routinely left for greener pastures. In an article he wrote in 1995, Valente warned that Portugal’s newfound openness – “liberalism and modernity”, he called it – would fatally change the country’s football.

The “monopolistic and despotic regime of the 1960s” was over forever.

“With the relative brevity of modern contracts and the huge salaries that are paid, Benfica would never join and keep together men like Costa Pereira, Ângelo, Germano, Coluna, Águas, José Augusto and Simões – not to mention Eusébio. Products of a poor country, Portuguese clubs don’t have the money to enjoy the long-term services of the exceptional players they develop, and to plug the hole this inevitable bleeding produced, Benfica contracted extravagant debts and bought doubtful foreigners in South America, Africa or Eastern Europe, from whom one couldn’t expect the same servility and submissive behaviour the heroes of legend used to display, as if one would be before the metics of yore, coerced by hunger and the whip, and not free agents in a free market.”

Much like Benfica, so the country tried to plug its own hole with extravagant debts: the economic development of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s created huge expectations with the Portuguese people that the country would enjoy living standards on par with those of its European partners. Successive governments then gave in to the temptation of spending more money than it could raise through taxes in order to fuel those expectations: they created fiscal incentives for buying a house, facilitating credit access to those looking to buy; they increased spending on the National Health Service, allowing improved healthcare standards to become accessible to a growing number of people without its costs impacting on their wallets; they promoted an expansion in benefits, providing a better income for people who would otherwise find themselves in a far grimmer place.

And although this government spending was built upon at mountain of government debt that would have to be paid sooner or later, it was all made possible by the country having been one of the founding members of the European Single Currency – the Euro – which, after years of high interest rates and inflation, gave Portugal German-like low levels of both, allowing a growing number of Portuguese people to channel a sizeable chunk of their income to acquire a number of goods that kept theirs dream of having become a country like its European neighbours alive, until it became clear they were nothing but.

By virtue of sharing a currency with countries with much sounder budgetary policies, Portugal was able to enjoy German-like interest rates on their government debts bonds while adopting Greek-style budgetary policies.

For a while, it seemed like the best of both worlds. Without having its own central bank with the power to debase its own currency, and being committed to relatively narrow budgetary targets, Portugal was able to provide potential lenders with greater assurances that they would get their money back then it ever could before. Until the day, of course, its debt was so high that lenders began to wonder if that was actually true. To make matters worse, the EU responded to the subprime bubble burst in America by encouraging its member states to spend (after borrowing) more money to “stimulate” the economy. Instead, it stimulated nothing but fears of government defaults in those countries that were already heavily indebted.

By 2011, Portugal had to be bailed out by the troika constituted by the EU, the ECB and the IMF. The government that inherited the situation was forced to introduce a series of austerity measures – spending cuts, higher taxes – that severely affected many people. Many lost their jobs, and even though the country seemed to bounce back and even managed to achieve some economic growth as of late, people’s incomes have yet to recover. The previous government has failed to actually reform the economy beyond the emergency measures it had to enact, and the new one has introduced a series of policies that have raised fears that in a few years – or maybe just months – the country will find itself in the same spot it was in 2011.

To make matters worse, Portugal’s banking system seems to be on the verge of collapse, as the country’s banks appear unable to finance their capital needs and the government to not to have enough resources to bail them out if they need to.

The case of the Espírito Santo Bank (BES) is instructive and significant. After the 1974 coup, and during the revolutionary tumults that followed, the assets of the old Espírito Santo financial group were nationalised by the government at the time. In the 1990s, governments began to privatise all the companies that had been nationalised and, as the economic historian Luciano Amaral explains in his book about the group, “the Portuguese political and economic elites wanted to rebuild national economic groups as a way to compensate them for what had happened”, which implied not only to exclude any popular capitalism-type solution with capital spread between several small owners and mechanisms to protect small shareholders, but also to use those family-owned groups as an instrument in “avoiding that the economy would fall under the control of foreigners”.

Read  |  Benfica’s youth-centric plan to rule Portugal and challenge in Europe

Thus these groups were reconstituted under “monopolist or at best oligopolistic conditions”, designed to make them successful at the expense of anything else, under the belief that the Portuguese economy required successful Portuguese-owned big economic groups.

And so it was that when the bank was privatised, Amaral writes, “the number of banks in the market had become practically half of those that existed in 1975”, and “that number kept going down until 2000, thanks to a concentration orchestrated between the State and the financial groups”.

“Not only,” he concludes, “was the privatisation carried out within a more concentrated market than the one it existed at the time of the nationalisation, it also did not prevent the continuation of such a concentration nor did it introduce competition factors.” And the same happened in other sectors were the group had important concerns, like telecommunications, oil or electricity.

All of them saw rising profits thanks to a shrinkage of competition in their respective markets, These privatisations, Amaral argues, “instead of allowing an improvement in the efficiency of the economy and its productivity, ended up allowing the economic groups to find refuge in protected sectors where, without serious exposure to the rigours of competition, profits were immense”.

The oldest and largest economic group in Portugal, Espírito Santo’s power was thus largely artificial, a product of political design and unhealthy (for the country if not immediately for the group or the politicians who cultivated its favour) promiscuity between the State and the group’s many business interests. When the economy collapsed, so did BES: governments had less money to spend, which also meant less contracts to be handed to BES-owned companies or BES-financed projects; loans that had been granted in the previous, leaner years were now on the verge of default, if by chance they had not fallen over that particular cliff already.

When the troika arrived in Portugal, it brought a package of €12 billion for banking recapitalisation, but because – as Amaral writes in his book – the family had, in order to keep the group in its hands, “often used unorthodox management and financing methods”, BES refused to use that money, perhaps fearing that doing so would have attracted a closer look into its books and uncover the cooking those had suffered in the previous years. By the summer of 2014, BES couldn’t keep its troubles at bay any longer and everything was over: the group was broken up and BES gave way to Novo Banco, which theoretically kept its predecessors “good assets” while the “toxic” ones were thrown into a “bad bank” designed to bury them.

In the process, many businesses that had financed themselves through BES loans were now facing difficulties in getting the money they needed. One of those businesses was Benfica. With less money than in previous years, Benfica could not afford to buy so many – and so expensive – foreign players it had until then, and was forced to lean more on its youth ranks and cheaper signings.

That policy change reportedly drove Jorge Jesus, the coach who had taken Benfica back to European finals (twice in the Europa League, one against Chelsea, the other against Sevilla’ both soul-crushing narrow losses), into the arms of their neighbour and rival Sporting. And so it was that, after letting young stars in the making like André Gomes or Bernardo Silva escape to foreign clubs in previous seasons, Benfica was now betting on homemade products like Renato Sanches or Gonçalo Guedes, and even Lindelof, who even though he was Swedish had played for Benfica’s youth teams.

Once again, Benfica’s history walked hand in hand with the country’s.

With 15 minutes left to play, the Benfiquista crowd began to believe again. Given a free-kick on the edge of the penalty box, Talisca, who had come in as a substitute, managed to place the ball just inside of the near post, too far for Manuel Neuer to get to and tying the game for the home team. Benfica still needed to score two more goals to advance, and didn’t have enough time to do it, but the fans either didn’t realise it or didn’t care. The goal had given them hope and that was all they wanted.

With six minutes left on the clock, Talisca had another free-kick – right about in the same spot from where he had scored – and as the ball left his foot and flew through the air, everyone believed it was going to go in. It didn’t, and one could hear the disappointment in the crowd’s “Whoa”.

Then, with less than a minute to play in stoppage time, Luka Jović, another substitute, got past Bayern Munich’s defence. He didn’t control the ball as perfectly as he could, but he had so much space that he had enough time to readjust his body and prepare to shoot nevertheless. To him, it all must have seemed to play out in slow-motion: the pass from Talisca behind his marker, his own stretching of the right leg to accommodate the ball, the way it almost escaped him, the realisation that he could still use his left foot to shoot, the kicking movement of his left leg, the contact with the ball, its own movement towards the goal, the way it met Neuer’s hands and stopped there. And immediately after, as his perception of reality sped up back into real-time, he too must have heard what everyone in the crowd and watching on TV heard: the sound of the referee’s whistle, signalling the game was over.

On Twitter, #cabeçaerguida – meaning ‘head held high’ – was already, to use the parlance of our times, trending, reflecting the sense that Benfica might have been eliminated but had been up to the challenge it faced.

Both online and outside the stadium, fans were simultaneously proud and disappointed. “We should have won,” cried one. “Even though we lost, I’m proud of my Benfica,” a young girl claimed. A man from the northern town of Guimarães who had come to Lisbon on his bicycle said “this was rough”. Many complained about the referee, for his failure to send off Martínez after the foul for the free-kick that gave Benfica their second goal. A man in his 30s said, “If only we’d had Gaitan, Jonas and Mitroglou.” Another, forgetting the game had come to a close just a second later and Benfica would have still needed to score one more goal, lamented “if only Jović had scored”.

In his 1965 essay, Cutileiro noted the main characteristic of Portuguese Clubismo – the sense of belonging a supporter feels for his club – and Benfiquismo in particular: “[It] is not the certainty that one can win, but the certainty that one can lose, which, in a Mediterranean society such as Portugal’s, implies a loss of face, making it so as to in a certain symbolic fashion, the life and honour of millions depends on the behaviour of half a dozen.”

Some things, after all, never change.

By Bruno Alves @ba_lifeofbruno

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