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 By Lee Roden

When Sporting meet Benfica, historical rivalry leads to new tensions

The Estadio Jose Alvalade, home to Sporting, was the scene for the latest meeting of two of Portugal's biggest clubs.

In the latest edition of ESPN FC's derbies series, which features eyewitness insights into some of the biggest rivalries in world football, Lee Roden went to Lisbon for the clash between Portuguese giants Sporting and Benfica. 

LISBON, Portugal -- At 5 p.m the Benfica supporters start to march from their own stadium into the enemy's heartland. It's Sunday, Feb. 8, 2015. They have been gathering outside the Estadio da Luz for around two hours. Once the number of red shirts reaches 2,500, the armour-clad police presence begins to direct them along the path of the Segunda Circular highway, the road that joins Lisbon's two biggest stadiums.

Like Spartans heading into battle, war cries ring out, the noise augmented by the unmistakable combination of light and sound that red flares bring. Police are cautious, advancing the crowd slowly, warily. The flaming mass follows its eastward course for a mere 2.8km (1.7 miles) yet around an hour and a half will pass before the Benfiquistas reach their goal; before the hulking green, yellow and white figure of the Estadio Jose Alvalade reveals itself. Home of Sporting Clube de Portugal. Home of their bitter rivals.

This is the Lisbon derby. Immensely compelling and frightening in its ferocity, on this day it will grip the city. With an estimated 8.4 million Portuguese citizens pledging their allegiance to either Sporting or Benfica, it will grip the country, too. Raw, raucous, and of the utmost relevance to both clubs, the derby drives supporters to produce jaw-dropping displays of allegiance and behaviour before, during and after the game.

Sporting and Benfica have been meeting for more than 100 years, during which time the rivalry between fans has grown and grown.

THE HATRED BETWEEN the two teams comes with history, its strength surviving the passing of generations. The fixture was first played in 1907. On Dec. 1 of that year, Benfica -- at the time known as Sport Lisboa -- had to suffer the indignity of watching eight of their former players turn out for their opponents, Sporting.

Worse still, they lost in humiliating fashion. One of the defectors, Candido Rodrigues, scored the opener for Sporting. Then Benfica founder and midfielder Cosme Damiao put the ball into his own net in the second half, leaving the final score 2-1 for Os Leoes.

In the 108 years that have followed, both clubs have experienced peaks and troughs, yet incredibly the derby has remained even. Taking only official fixtures into account, Benfica have won 128 in all competitions to Sporting's 105, the rest of the 294 encounters ending in a draw. When Sporting are the hosts it's even tighter, particularly in the league: 32 home wins to 30 for the away side. Unpredictability has helped to maintain the antagonism over the decades.

A class distinction has also fortified the division between the sides. The original Estadio da Luz was built with cement and funds donated by fans, creating the image of Benfica as the everyman's club. Sporting, on the other hand, thank no less than royalty for their existence: founder Jose Alvalade was backed financially by his viscount grandfather, a man handed his title by King Carlos I of Portugal.

Instead of taking pride in gifts of money and materials from fans, this club boasts of kings, queens, dukes and dignitaries attending early fixtures. The dawn of the 1960s ushered in a role reversal however: the emergence of royalty of another kind ensured that prestige and glamour became the business of Benfica, not Sporting. The emergence of the man known as O Rei. The King.

Eusebio continues to play a major role in Benfica fan culture.

THE CONTRAST BETWEEN the two clubs is apparent before I have even touched ground in Lisbon. As my flight descends from the southeast, I'm treated to a priceless aerial view of both the silver and red Estadio da Luz and bright green Estadio Jose Alvalade.

The juxtaposition in colour is made all the more striking by proximity, with the grounds separated only by a curving branch of highway. A large section of that road now bares the name of a key protagonist who has shaped the course of this great rivalry for over half a century.

The road is the newly inaugurated Avenida Eusebio da Silva Ferreira, a 2.2km section of the Segunda Circular that runs past Benfica's ground from the west, carrying on eastwards toward neighbouring Sporting. As of January 2015, any time supporters wish to travel the simplest route between the two stadiums they will traverse a road carrying the departed icon's name. Ten minutes by car or 40 on foot, it's a journey that Benfica fans are likely to savour far more than their rivals.

Eusebio is the most revered of Benfica's legends, but he could easily have ended up on the other side of the divide. During his teenage years, O Rei played for Sporting feeder team Sporting Clube de Lourenco Marques in Mozambique, after twice being rejected by Benfica's own feeder side Grupo Desportivo de Lourenco de Marques.

When the time came for him to move to Portugal, Sporting couldn't offer an attractive contract, but Benfica had realised the error of their ways. Coach Bela Guttmann received a tip off about the electric inside-left and decided to sign him.

Pulling off the deal had a major effect on the fortunes of both clubs; Sporting became Lisbon underdogs, while Benfica were transformed into supreme rulers of Portugal and beyond.

In 1960, the year Eusebio arrived in Europe, Sporting and Benfica were inseparable at a domestic level with 10 league titles each. Neither had come close to winning the European Cup. By the time Eusebio left Benfica in 1975 they had won the European Cup and appeared in three other finals. Benfica also had league 21 titles, while Sporting only raised their own tally to 14.

Naturally, Sporting felt hard done by, missing out on a once in a generation player and European glory. Time hasn't healed the wounds, second-generation Sporting fan Chris Mendes tells me: "The fact that he played for Sporting in Mozambique then went to Benfica still grinds with supporters. There's a common perception among Sportinguistas that Benfica robbed us... there's definitely a feeling of 'what could have happened?' had he gone to Sporting."

That unshakable sense of injustice is apparent in the way Sporting supporters verbally attack Benfica ahead of the derby. A week before the game, in an attempt to amp up the tension, Youtube channel Claques do Sporting publish a video explaining "The seven differences between Sportinguistas and Benfiquistas."

It's mostly unremarkable mudslinging, until the seventh and final difference arrives. Eusebio's face appears, text superimposed over his image: "Benfica are underhanded. On the surface they defend fair play, but it's a farce. Sporting are consistent and keep their word, whether they benefit or not".

The insinuation here seems to be that Eusebio didn't keep his own word too, though not all Sporting fans are comfortable with holding him responsible, with his death in 2014 perhaps making Benfica a more palatable target. "It was more a family decision than just him ... I don't think Sporting fans perceive him personally as a traitor," Mendes insists.

Eusebio died in January 2014 at the age of 71.

PLAYERS OF EUSEBIO'S class have been absent from the derby for some time, but a recent revival has edged the two clubs closer to the prestige of old. Though FC Porto won seven out of the last 10 Portuguese league titles, the gap between them and the big Lisbon teams has narrowed, helping to make the derby particularly relevant as of late.

In 2011, Porto won the Primeira Liga by a 21-point margin over second placed Benfica, 36 points separating the champions from third-placed Sporting. By 2014 that had all changed: Benfica claimed the league, and their main challengers were not Porto, but Sporting, who finished second. Six points above Os Dragoes.

Sporting haven't won the league since 2002, but the March 2013 election of Bruno de Carvalho as club president saw them almost instantly mount a title challenge. Their run to second place in 2013-14 changed the panorama of the Primeira Liga significantly.

By February 2015 there are signs that Sporting will be fighting it out at the top for a second successive year. Ahead of the Feb. 8 fixture, they sat seven points behind league leaders Benfica; a not unfathomable home win would reduce that gap to four.

Sporting fans whip up the atmosphere before their clash with Benfica.

AS ANY FOLLOWER of Jorge Jesus' side will gladly inform you, Benfica are the most supported team in Portugal, some estimates claiming there are around six million of their followers in a country whose population is less than double that figure.

Former Lisbon resident and Portuguese football writer Andy McDougall had assured me that the place to be if I want to witness Benfiquistas in action is the Estadio da Luz, at around 4:45 p.m. on matchday. His advice is sound. There may only be 2,500 of them, but as a concentrated mass their presence naturally leaves a more profound impression than the pockets of Sporting fans I saw earlier in the day.

As does their ground. From the outside the Estadio da Luz, which hosted the final of EURO 2004 and the 2014 UEFA Champions League, certainly gives off the air of being the home of footballing royalty, its prestige not awarded by viscounts but by famous victories over some of the continent's greats.

The noise being given off by the supporters who have gathered in its shadow almost makes me wish the derby were here instead of further east.

Then I travel to the Alvalade to discover what being a Sportinguista really means. Earlier in the week I asked Tom Kundert, editor of, if there was one "must-see" event on a matchday. His answer left me skeptical: "mingling with the fans around the roulotes (snack-bars) before kick-off is an experience."

I arrive at Campo Grande station via the green line (appropriately) and follow a winding overpass that extends from its exit, the graffiti-laden glass obscuring any view of the outside world.

I can hear what's coming but can't see it. Stepping out from the tunnel, sight, sound and smell combine and hit me all at once, like a prize fighter's best right hook. There are people everywhere. The air is laced with the scent of unfamiliar food. The noise is constant, and there are most definitely no half-and-half scarves in sight.

The soundtrack is led by various groups of ultras, spread in sizable pockets around the steps at the main entrance to the stadium. Their singing never stops, "Ate Morrer Sporting Allez" (until death, up Sporting) is a particular favourite. As are any of a number of combinations of Benfica's name and various insults. Street vendors keep the masses nourished with couratos (fried pig skin), Portuguese churros and beer.


- The first derby was played on Dec. 1, 1907 in the Campeonato de Lisboa, Sporting won 2-1.

- Of the 294 matches played, Benfica have won 128, Sporting 105.

- Most appearances in the derby is held joint by Fernando Peyroteo (Sporting) and Eusebio (Benfica) on 29.

- Fernando Peyroteo of Sporting, with 31 goals, is the leading scorer in the derby.

The police are wearing riot gear, several of them carry machine guns and only later would I understand why they were expecting trouble. This wasn't the first Lisbon derby of the weekend: the two teams met in a futsal match 24 hours before, during which Benfica fans held up a banner displaying the phrase "Very Light 96.".

The words referred to the tragic death of 36-year-old Sporting supporter Rui Mendes, who was struck by a "very light" branded flare thrown by Benfica ultras, during the 1995-96 Taca de Portugal final contested between the two teams. Derbies are difficult enough for police without added provocation on this kind of deeply emotional level.

Inevitably, the fireworks soon start, the ultras using them to punctuate their songs with increasing frequency. Daylight has disappeared, green flares now illuminating the area. Someone has the bright idea of sticking one of them in a plastic bin, leaving it smouldering, though the police turn a blind eye. Presumably it isn't worth the hassle.

A huge cheer goes up. At the top of the stairs a group of youngsters have set a Benfica shirt alight. The ultras approve. Supporters soon start to make their way into the stadium, bottle-necked up the stairway by the police, so I follow their cue. I duly take my place in the Lateral B section, in the far right corner of the south side of the ground. I do my best to fit in and not give the game away that I'm not a regular.

Weeks before the game I had asked a friend and Sporting fan where the best place to sit in the stadium is. "If you want atmosphere, all of the ultras sit in the south stand," he advised. The smell of food from outside is quickly replaced with the smell of cigarettes. The lack of a smoking ban -- or lack of heed paid to one -- adds to the feeling that this is an unpolished, old-fashioned derby whose rough edges have not yet been smoothed out to fit the monochrome world of modern football.

I notice the deep moat surrounding the pitch, separating the fans from the playing surface by a sizable drop, which further convinces me that this is perhaps not the safest place to sit. Later that night, it very nearly provides the backdrop to tragedy: a Sporting supporter who was caught up in the excitement of the game fell over the barricade during celebrations. He required surgery as a result.

Benfica fans celebrate their team's goal vs. Sporting.

Inside the stadium, now an hour before kick-off, the excitement is mainly being provided by the Benfica supporters. Escorted to their place in the north stand without any major incidents, they are out-singing the home fans, who are still trickling in to their seats. The Benfiquistas brandish one small but potent banner: the image of Eusebio, adorned with the letters "SLB." Even in death, he makes the pilgrimage to enemy soil. Simple, but effective. Predictable, even.

Indeed, predictable enough for Sporting to have prepared a response. The stadium's video screens soon run a package congratulating Cristiano Ronaldo on his 30th birthday. It shows footage of him playing in the green and white shirt as a boy, reminds viewers that he is still a paying socio, then drives home the importance of his three Ballon d'Or wins (three times as many as Eusebio, for what it's worth.)

"You have Eusebio? Well, we have Ronaldo." When the package moves to Ronaldo's most recent Ballon d'Or win, the home fans at the Alvalade imitate his bizarre "Hooooo" noise from the gala. Partly in jest, perhaps, partly to remind others that he is their player, a Sporting boy.

JUST AS THE teams are about to walk out, the ultras in the south stand reveal their pièce de résistance. A huge banner falls from the rafters, covering a third of the section. On one side is a relaxed looking green and white figure, boasting a hat with the Sporting club crest. On the other, two goofy, slightly overweight supporters, one wearing red, the other blue. Representing Benfica and Porto, of course.

"Better alone and honourable than in bad company," the text beneath reads. A reference to Sporting conspiracy theories of the other two big Portuguese teams working in tandem.

The ultras aren't finished. As soon as the banner has fallen, they set off multiple flares in succession. The tarpaulin traps the smoke in a condensed area, the smell of sulphur soon thick in the air. The phrase "cauldron" is overused when describing a football stadium, but the concentrated smoke spilling out from behind the banner and into the moat really does create that effect.

It must be quite the spectacle to witness as the players walk out from the tunnel. Green flares continue to be set off in groups of three or four for the entirety of the game -- the lack of reaction from the stewards is telling. They've done this before and don't want to get involved. The flares ultimately cause no harm at this side of the ground.

The stadium is full. The 49,076 attendance is an all-time record for the Alvalade in official competitions. There are no large swathes taken up by executive boxes or passive day-trippers. This is a football stadium constructed for football fans, every nook and cranny filled with die-hards. A novel concept these days.

Between them, Sporting and Benfica have won 51 Portuguese league titles.

At 8 p.m. sharp, referee Jorge Sousa blows his whistle and the game gets underway. Within minutes the pattern of play for the evening becomes apparent. Sporting, desperate to take three points, look to move the ball forward as quickly as possible, often sacrificing accuracy for urgency. Benfica, aware there is no need to force the issue, try to keep things tight. The absence of Nico Gaitan through injury also conditions their lack of creative intent.

Sporting try to use the wings to stretch the visitors, and have some success getting into dangerous positions, but can't take advantage. More often than not their end product lacks quality, particularly from Nani -- no great surprise to anyone familiar with his previous body of work at Manchester United.

While he isn't necessarily decisive in a creative capacity, the on-loan winger -- and Sporting icon -- is important elsewhere. Fully committed, his most noteworthy contribution in the first half is at the other end, where he does well to snuff out a dangerous looking counter-attack led by Eduardo Salvio.

By the time the half-time whistle blows at 0-0, there has been little in terms of a spectacle, the highlight probably being when William Carvalho mercilessly punted the ball into the moat for a poor ball-boy to chase.

As is typical of most derbies, the game itself was largely disappointing ... until the closing stages, at least.

IF THE HALF-TIME snacks are anything to go by, things will soon improve. I opt for a tube of five Queijadas de Sintra, small Portuguese cinnamon tarts that are a definite step up from an English pie and Bovril. There is a certain nervousness in the queues at the break. "We're too anxious in front of goal, we need to play the simple ball" one fan complains. "They were on the ropes, we needed to score. We won't be able to keep this pace up," another insists.

But one thing is clear: the longer Sporting go without finding the net, the more tense this evening is going to get.

The home team continue to be wasteful in front of goal but, to the credit of the supporters, they never stop. Led on by the relentless drumbeat of the Juventude Leonina (Young Lions) supporters club, they keep pushing to inspire their team. The ultras are being led by a few shirtless conductors at the front. With their backs to the game, they must be freezing. It's four degrees Celsius.

The consistency of the singing is impressive, but the reaction when Sporting finally make the breakthrough is unlike anything I've ever experienced at other grounds. In the 89th minute, Joao Mario latches on to a slack backpass and bursts into the area. He shoots straight at an advancing Arthur, but the keeper can only parry into the path of Sporting left-back Jefferson, who follows-up for the goal.

Jefferson's goal was, to date, the only one he has scored for Sporting this season.

In an instant, everyone is out of their seats, a tidal wave of people crashing forwards towards the barricade. I'm not a Sporting supporter, but I find myself swept up in the moment and running with them, embracing strangers and smiling -- partly in appreciation of the crowd's reaction, partly in disbelief over what I've just done. Jefferson wheels away toward the south stand and rips his shirt off, only further adding to the madness.

The speaker announces the score over the P.A. system, and in a very particular way. "Sporting um, equipe visitante zero," he repeats over and over again, the home fans joining in each time. Not once does he pay Benfica the respect of referring to them by name, always labelling them "visiting team."

As incredible as the euphoria is, it's also brief. Aware that the title race is about to take a U-turn, Jorge Jesus reacts quickly. He throws on forward Derley and attacking midfielder Pizzi for the four minutes of added time, and in the last possible second, Benfica equalise.

Incredibly, it's a defender (and not a particularly highly-rated one) who does the damage. The ball is hooked into the Sporting box, and centre-back Jardel Nivaldo Vieira smashes home a half-volley. The noise stops instantly, as if someone has pressed mute on a remote.

"Sporting um, equipe visitante um," the speaker announces, his voice sheepish this time. A group of supporters behind me start to move. "Let's go. Now," one of them says with evident urgency. I've been to enough football matches to know what that means.

Like clockwork, as soon as the referee blows the final whistle, the trouble starts. At the opposite end of the ground the Benfica supporters throw three or four flares at the Sporting section closest to them, home fans visibly struggling to get out of the way. A stupid act in isolation, but given the result of similar events in this fixture in years gone by, it's a harsh reminder of the mindlessness that intense football rivalry seems to encourage. Six Sporting fans were injured.

BACK IN THE city centre it feels like a collective hangover has descended on Lisbon. I've had time to catch the metro, eat, as well as return to my hotel, but when I turn on the TV, armoured police are still escorting the Benfica supporters home. In comparison to the cautious pace of earlier in the day, the police move the ranks forward as quickly as possible.

The football may be over, but the dissection has only just begun. No less than four different TV channels are airing dedicated programs analysing the match. "Alright, there wasn't so much great football, but it was a great tactical battle," one pundit insists. "You're only saying that because Jesus went out for a draw," his rival analyst counters.

The latter sentiment is the prevailing one as fans and the written press share this disillusion over Jesus' lack of ambition. "Sorte Grande," "Really lucky -- Benfica played the first 87 minutes to draw and achieved it in the fourth of added time," reads the front page of Portuguese paper A Bola.

More seriously, on page 13, there are reports of the police storming the Benfica end after the equaliser "due to chairs and other objects being thrown at the Sporting fans." Those few lines foreshadow a dispute that is destined to drag on for weeks.

Around 48 hours after the game, Sporting announce they are cutting all official ties with Benfica, citing both the banner and flare-throwing incidents from the derby weekend.

Benfica president Luis Filipe Vieira soon makes a statement in response, explaining he asked security staff to remove the offensive banner as soon as he noticed it at the futsal match, and accusing Bruno de Carvalho of using the incident as an excuse to reduce relations between the clubs.

The fall out is prolonged further still. De Carvalho quickly takes to Facebook with a 1,000 word retort. He accuses Vieira of suffering from "acute egocentrism," then casts doubt on where his club loyalty lies, suggesting he was a Porto socio long before he turned his attention to Benfica. De Carvalho even takes a pop at the Benfica leader for failing to show face on Facebook, no insult seemingly too petty. 

These are club presidents talking, yet the no-holds-barred nature of their verbal sparring brings them down to the level of an average supporter. Everyone is sucked into the heat of this derby.

Lee Roden is a European football writer based in Barcelona. Follow him on Twitter: @LeeRoden89.


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