The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.
We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.
Now we walk the forgotten byways of football with a lonely tread, searching for the beautiful, the bewildering, the haunting, and the absurd.
It was the cruellest of jokes. Even with the reverberations from the 5-0 walloping they took at FC Porto earlier in the season still quietly rumbling away in the back of their minds, Benfica fans were still willing to forgive the previous week’s capitulation at the Estádio da Luz which had allowed Porto to saunter away with the title. After all, Benfica held a 2-0 lead from the first leg of what appeared to be a redeeming Cup semifinal tie. Porto had to score three times if they were to humiliate O Glorioso for the second time in two weeks. Yet somehow, a Radamael Falcao mishit deflected its way past the hapless Roberto and sealed the completion of what Porto coach André Villas Boas called “complete domination”. It wasn’t just a defeat for a club like Benfica. It felt like annihilation.
According to a recent poll, Porto fans derive their identity as supporters from their club’s on-pitch success; they are proud because their team accumulates trophies and smashes records. Theirs is a pragmatic dogma, a relentless chopping at the legacy of Benfica’s past. Sporting fans, meanwhile, are motivated by a sense of indefatigability. The poll found that Benfica’s city rivals are able to fill their stadium because fans see support for their faltering, penniless club as an act of defiance. As for Benfica themselves, it would appear that around 60% of the Portuguese population worships their idea of grandeza—‘greatness’. Benfica’s title win last year saw greater celebrations than when Portugal reached the final of Euro 2004 on home soil. A popular scarf which can be bought from the club shop reads ‘Maior Que Portugal’—‘Bigger Than Portugal’.
With Porto back in control on the field, Benfica’s ‘greatness’ is rooted in something else. It rises from beyond the limits of mere sport, taking its power from outside the stadium, outside reality, in the memory and collective consciousness of fans raised on a notion of Benfica as, well, ‘BENFICA’. It is a non-specific sense of grandeur, yet it is far from being a delusion. In the 1960s, the club could well claim to be the greatest in the world but, as the emblem of tiny, politically marginalised and geographically-challenged Portugal, its memory has been pressed into near-obscurity. Though ‘BENFICA’ did not lose its international prestige until the mid-nineties and remains the most supported club in Portugal—it has even overtaken Barcelona as the club with most paying members in the world—its success is woven into the fabric of a nation which is struggling to awaken from the nightmare of history.
James Joyce’s Ulysses is an apt comparison, I believe. As the Enlightenment forged the idea of history as the inevitable unfolding of progress, Portugal’s own history was unravelling, the cult of Sebastianism sapping at the intellectual energy of a country trapped in perennial decline. Stephen Dedalus is ‘taught’ that history is the movement “towards the manifestation of God”; Portugal could not and cannot relate to the idea of history as a positive force for progress. Each and every step is a step taken by the global elite to whom the formerly great Portuguese find themselves tied; each and every step is a step away from destiny. It is much the same with Benfica.
Yet while Benfica’s grandeza is that of Portugal—more than that of Portugal, in fact—the similarities end there. For Benfica’s history is not a Romantic absolute. Though it finds its much of its concrete expression in statues of Eusébio and the grainy footage of the European Cup wins in the 1960s, ‘BENFICA’ is not (and could not be) limited to one era. What President Luís Filipe Vieira’s marketing strategists appear to have grasped is that ‘BENFICA’ is transcendence through multiplicity. In other words, like all great modern ideas, its greatness lies in the multiplicity of itself: it is at once the grand old club of lore, with an irreplaceable history, and the modern expression of the qualities which lit up that past—attack, power, glory. All great clubs are founded on illusions—it is illusion, and hope, which makes supporters pay to go and watch the games, to scream, to cry, to laugh. Should Porto’s revolving door of trophies grind to a halt, their fans would lose their illusion. Benfica’s illusion, however, is complex, at once burdened and enhanced by the past. If Porto were to hold a mirror up to the game as they interpret it, they would see trophies and medals. Benfica would see a thousand interconnected images of masses of red, a Eusebio goal, a Rui Costa pass. Benfica’s mirror is Joyce’s cracked looking-glass.
The trouble with ‘BENFICA’ is that the image needs success to sustain itself. While it is rather a convenient get-out for when Benfica don’t win (so long as they don’t win in a glorioso fashion, naturally), the Benfica idea is, inevitably, reliant on fresh flashes of glory. When glory isn’t forthcoming, the result is harrowing; whilst Porto’s relentless pursuit of trophies is a quest which must, like their squad, face a complete renewal with each new season, Benfica’s grandeza implies a state of permanence which leads to utter despair when things go wrong. So when those upstarts from Porto have the audacity to win at the Estádio da Luz twice in two weeks to take the league and a place in the cup final, it doesn’t just hurt. It shakes the very foundations that the club is built upon.
Augusto Neto strings thirty passes together and hits the post at www.soccerlens.com.
Sebastianism is a name given to a belief, which persisted in Portugal well into the nineteenth century, that King Sebastian, who disappeared in battle during a doomed military campaign in North Africa, would return to lead the nation back to its fifteenth-century glory. Portugal’s government, according to some, appears to believe it even today.
by Augusto Neto · May 13, 2011