The Benfica Crisis – How Not to Run the Most Supported Football Club in the World

Thomas Hayes 20 February 2022
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Combine ‘most supported football club in the world’ and ‘crisis’ and anyone in football would be surprised that the word ‘Barcelona’ doesn’t feature somewhere in the title. And while the Catalan titans are indeed – to say the least – in a monumental quagmire of their own making, they’re not quite the world’s most widely supported club, and they’re certainly not the only one with their foot in it. The focus of this article shifts over to sunny Lisbon, just out of the periphery of the interest of the British press, to the team that beat Barcelona 3-0 in their recent Champions League group stage who are facing an emergency of their own.

Benfica’s past is glittered with success: the team to halt Real Madrid’s run of five consecutive European Cups, winning it twice consecutively in 1961 and 1962, they are the most decorated club in Portuguese football, with a record 37 league titles. Seen as the club of Portugal’s working class, it holds the Guinness World Record for the world’s most widely supported football club, and UEFA estimates that 47% of Portuguese fans support them. However, its illustrious history is clouded with the infamous curse of former manager Béla Guttmann, who – on being refused a pay rise after winning their second European Cup – decreed:

‘Not in a hundred years from now will Benfica ever be European champions.’

So far, the curse still stands. Once one of the greatest on the continental stage, and one of only eight clubs to defend back-to-back European Cups, the club holds the less impressive record for losing eight European finals. From an outside perspective though, they don’t seem to be in crisis; after all, in the last eight years, Benfica won the league five times. Delving deeper though, club management is revealed to be an utter shambles.

Two years have dragged by without winning a major trophy, and the culture of winning that the club’s fanatic support demands swells the scale of this failure. Going trophyless at Benfica is different than doing so at a Premier League club, due to a comparative lack of domestic competitivity. For example, following a 0-0 draw in 2020 against minnows Tondela, the team bus was stoned and two players were injured by a group of ‘ultras’, furious at the team’s performance during the season. The club’s unusual management structure has existed since it became a SAD (ironically named), a type of public sports company, managed by a board of directors but also owned by the fans, who can buy shares and own part of the SAD. It is figureheaded by the President, a position formerly held by 72-year-old Luís Filipe Vieira between 2003 and 2021. While extraordinarily talented at ripping off Premier League teams (in what world was Lazar Markovic ever worth €25m), he was arrested in July this year over mishandling €100m that, according to prosecutors, ‘may have caused large losses to the state and several companies.’ Among his charges: tax fraud, abuse of trust and money laundering. It came to light that Vieira had, for years, also been using his position at the club to influence legal authorities in his family’s cases. Over the years, he had been struck with allegations but always sidestepped consequences (in 1993 he bizarrely got away with stealing a truck), but many fans had demanded he be investigated further, some suggesting he had been pocketing too much of Benfica’s profit for himself, as fans have long lamented the club’s tactic of selling their best players without reinvesting – where was the money going?

Perhaps in appeasement, in 2020 Vieira replaced manager Bruno Lage with Jorge Jesus, coupling this with a €105m investment in new players over the summer, a record for Portuguese football. At last, it seemed, the club was spending! But a poor choice of players and Jorge Jesus’ fiery but outdated management style reaped little reward: the club failed to qualify for the Champions League and reports quickly emerged of a locker-room rift between the players and the manager. For the last few years, it had been rumoured that the dressing room had been overrun by ‘player power’, never an indicator of healthy leadership and management. In December, one of the three ringleaders, Pizzi, spoke out against Jesus, and the manager reprimanded him by barring him from training. In revolt, the entire squad refuse to train. Within days, Jesus had been forced out of the club.

Benfica is not just a comment on how clubs can be run badly, but a comment on how football has changed for the worst. No longer putting sport first, it has become fuelled by business and profit. Benfica’s glory days have been replaced with a reputation as a selling club, only ever buying one player for over £20m once (and he is almost certainly on his way out at the end of this season). If they were to have kept their best talent, Benfica would certainly be challenging for the Champions League title: four of Man City’s starting XI – arguably the best current XI in the world – are ex-Benfica players. Combining Ruben Dias, Bernardo Silva, João Cancelo and Ederson, £203.5 million (+ 1 Nicolas Otamendi) of City’s transfer expenditure was on these four players alone, two of which were the most expensive transfer sums for a player in their position. In 2019 Benfica sold João Félix for £113 million, making him the fourth most expensive player in football, and the club has generated more transfer income than any other team in the past 10 years, with £1.04 billion. Jan Oblak, Di Maria, Raul Jimenez, and David Luiz were among the other players that they cashed in on. How is it that a club whose scouts and academy produces so much talent can be forced to lose it so quickly?

The fans are clearly unhappy, and the club continues to lose money as a result – in the 2018/19 season, they boasted an average home attendance of almost 54,000, one of the highest in Europe, but a recent home game featured a measly home crowd of just over 29,000. So what now for Benfica? They remain the most decorated club in Portugal, but for how long? Their Catalan counterparts in crisis can at least take solace in the abundance of young talent in the Barcelona squad, and so their future is at least in safe hands. But at Benfica, the talent they make will inevitably be sold. Perhaps the future hinges on Vieira’s replacement, Milan and Benfica legend Rui Costa. Formerly Vieira’s vice-president, some worry it is not the change the club needs, but others have faith that he can set them on the path to recovery. Recently he made the radical vow to increase accessibility by allowing free entry to midweek home games, which signalled a step in the right direction – but whether he can help Benfica break Guttmann’s curse remains to be seen.