The title of this blog may be a mystery to some of you, but only if you have never heard of the most supported football club in the world. Today, I leave for Brazil, catching a 16:25 TAP flight to Salvador de Bahia, (after two years of presuming I would be in Rio I had a late change of heart, knowing that I would be there in 2014 for the Olympics anyway, and seeing that after the draw Salvador had much better matches, at least until the final).
I popped over to Lisbon for two reasons: one, I had never been to Portugal, and two, they speak Portuguese here, (they kind of invented it), so I could learn the lingo for a few months before heading out for carnival. In my first week I had to make a decision: was I going to support the green and white stripes of Sporting Lisbon, or the red and white of Benfica. That decision, made by doing some research into the teams and asking a few new co-workers and random strangers on the streets and in shops, changed my year dramatically. I have attended almost every Benfica match in the glorious Estadio da Luz, (a 15-minute metro ride directly from my apartment), made friends (and enemies!) based purely on my choice of team, filled a room with scarves, jerseys and memorabilia, run a 10k fun run through the stadium, (collecting some souvenir grass on the way through), attended two cup finals, and even been to a few away matches.
The last of these will be featured in an upcoming blog, since it was as away as you could get this season – the Europa Cup Final in Torino, Italy. So, that is the story behind the blog: my year of sport is about to merge from its Benfica-based first half, to its Brasil-bound second half, and I hope you enjoy the ride. But before we set off, you may be wondering what on earth I meant when I called SLB, (Sport Lisboa e Benfica), the most supported team in the world at the start of this blog entry. Bigger than Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Manchester United? Surely not. Surely.
In 1961 and 1962 Benfica won back-to-back European cups against none other than Barcelona and Real Madrid. The 1962 final had featured one of the greatest ever players to grace a pitch, Mozambique-born Eusébio, who went on to become a Benfica and Portuguese legend.
‘The King’ passed away soon after I arrived in Lisbon, (it was nothing to do with me, I swear), and there were three days of national mourning for a man who was declared a national treasure by Portuguese dictator Salazar in order to keep him in the country when Juventus came knocking.
At the same time, in 1961 the colonial wars broke out, as Portuguese former African colonies fought for independence. At the height of these wars, around 200,000 Portuguese fled the country to avoid being drafted to fight. They spread around the world, where there are 5 million Portuguese ex-pats to this day, and they took with them the love of their country…and of their favourite football team. The Guinness Book of Records counts Benfica as having more paid members than any other club in the world, currently numbering over a quarter of a million. And I am proud to count myself number 263,951. If you’ve enjoyed this blog, and want to read more, please FOLLOW my blog in the link in the top left corner of the page: that way you will never miss a blog, and I will know someone out there is reading!