If you are reading this you are, most likely, a football fan. And if you are a football fan, the name ‘Benfica’ is probably familiar to you. You know it is one of the top Portuguese clubs – the biggest in terms of fan-base and silverware – but those pieces of information probably sum up your knowledge of the club. You probably don’t know that this club already has two European Cups – won in 1961 and 1962 – in a time when a man/panther by the name of ‘Eusébio’ took the football world by storm and challenged the almighty Real Madrid almost on his own. It sounds like science fiction by today’s standards right? That’s because it is.
50 years ago, in an era when money was not synonymous with success (I’ll come back to this in a bit), a football club of a small European country could be successful domestically and on the continent. Winning a major competition didn’t mean that you had to overhaul your entire team the next year, you could build upon last year’s success and prepare for next year’s challenges. This is simply not the case anymore.
If we look at the Champions League in the past twenty years it is has been easy to guess where the winner will come from. In the last twenty seasons of the competition the winner came either from Spain (eight times), England (four times), Italy (four times) or Germany (three times), a combined total of nineteen (!) times. The exception to this golden rule gives us the best explanation to why this happens.
José Mourinho’s Porto team won the Champions League in the 2003-04 season and what followed perfectly demonstrates the difficulty of building a successful team in a country like Portugal. That team had Mourinho, of course, at the helm, but it had more. It had Paulo Ferreira and Ricardo Carvalho in the back four and had Deco in midfield. These three players earned Porto a combined £55 million, whilst Mourinho’s arrival at Chelsea (along with Ferreira and Carvalho) earned the Portuguese club a few extra million. In May Porto won the highest prize in European football. In June they were back to square one.
A similar pattern has emerged at Benfica in the last few years, but in Benfica’s case, the fans didn’t even have the ‘consolation prize’ of winning a Champions League. In the last six seasons, Benfica won three Portuguese championships, one Portuguese Cup, four League Cups and have reached two Europa League finals. The best they managed to achieve in the Champions League was a place in the quarter-finals in the 2011-12 season, a ‘feat’ they have somehow managed to match this season as well.
Before having a look at this team and trying to understand how on earth were they able to reach the quarter finals this year let’s look at some names that played for Benfica in these last six seasons: Angel Di Maria, Ezequiel Garay, David Luiz, Fábio Coentrão, Axel Witsel, Javi Garcia, Ramires, Lazar Markovic, Nemanja Matic, Enzo Pérez. Do these names ring any bells? Some of them do, others not so much, but these were some of the names responsible for arguably the most successful Benfica teams in the last twenty years.
Obviously, not a single one of them plays in Portugal today. As a consequence Benfica earned in excess of £160 million in transfer fees, which nowadays is seen by most people as a measure of success. Great, right? £160 million! Benfica fans must be overjoyed, right? Wrong! Benfica fans are of course happy because they managed to maintain their domestic dominance but they didn’t even come close to reaching true European glory. They won, and because they won, their chances of winning again got slimmer every year. To fans, selling a player for a record fee is not winning. Winning is winning. Winning is being successful on a regular basis and on an increasingly high level. However nowadays it is virtually impossible for a Portuguese club to be consistently successful.
The success of this season’s Benfica team is nothing short of a miracle. Their captain and twelve year veteran, Luisão, broke an arm in November and has not played since. Their two most renowned players, the Argentinean wingers Nico Gaitán and Eduardo Salvio, have been battling injuries all season. Their top scorer and Golden Boot leader is a 32 year old Brazilian, who two years ago was released from Valencia because no one wanted him. The team was lacking players in fundamental positions and the consensus was that this would be a season of consolidation where the young players would probably get a chance to shine. The new coach was coming from a small Portuguese club and he was expected to have some difficulties adapting to the ‘big boys club’.
So, when a Benfica fan – like myself – watches the Champions League quarter-finals draw, hoping for a strike of luck, what exactly is his incentive? When a Benfica fan looks at his team and sees young Portuguese players like Renato Sanches or Gonçalo Guedes come through the ranks and establish themselves as stars in their team’s European campaign what’s his ultimate goal? Is it to win the Champions League or is to break the transfer fee record for an eighteen year old player? Because if his goal is to win the Champions League you’ll probably tell him to stop drinking, and rightfully so. If his goal is to break the record, he probably has a chance but being a football fan is about winning, not profits.