Last Easter, I took advantage of the holidays to escape Madrid and spend a few days in Lisbon.
The footballing highlight of this was undoubtedly getting to tick off a visit to one of the great stadiums of Europe – the Estádio da Luz.
A Modern Icon
Since replacing the old Estádio da Luz in 2004, the new ground has been the scene of numerous triumphs for Benfica as well as two extremely iconic finals – with very different outcomes for Portugal’s favourite son Cristiano Ronaldo.
2004 saw Portugal host the European Championships but the tournament ended with young Ronaldo (and most of the country) in tears after they lost in the decider to Greece. In fairness, they should have seen it coming as Greece had already beaten Portugal in the opening game and then eliminated France, the holders, and the Czech Republic, the best team in the tournament, on their way to the decider.
Ten years later, it was the venue for the Champions League Final which almost saw an altogether more popular underdog victory as Atlético Madrid led deep into injury time until Sergio Ramos scored a last-gasp equaliser. You all know the story, an exhausted Atleti collapsed in extra time, allowing an otherwise peripheral Ronaldo to cap off the win by scoring a penalty.
I can’t recommend the Museum and Stadium Tour enough, it’s definitely one of the best tours I’ve done at a big club’s stadium, especially when it comes at a discount!
I did the tour on my first visit to Lisbon back in 2016, but it was well worth repeating.
The first floor is packed full of the various trophies won by the club’s teams, not just in football for Benfica, like many clubs outside the UK and Ireland, have a multitude of athletes in different sports competing under their colours including athletics, basketball, handball, hockey and swimming to name but a few. And being Benfica, they are obviously among the most successful teams in their particular sport.
Heading up to the second floor is my favourite part. As you climb the stairs you can follow a timeline which traces three threads, Benfica’s history, Portugal’s history and the major events happening elsewhere in the world.
The second floor is a tribute to the various players, managers and presidents who have helped shape the club’s history as well as models of the various stadiums they’ve played in.
There’s also an animated video of club’s history shown on a big screen (which is well worth waiting around for one of the screenings of) and, quite brilliantly, a penalty shootout simulator.
Eusébio da Silva Ferreira is without a doubt the greatest player in Benfica’s history (and largely accepted as Portugal’s greatest until that boy Ronaldo came along), winning eleven league titles and two European Cups on his way to becoming the club’s all-time record goalscorer.
So it only feels proper that he should be recognised in some way at the stadium. And this statue (one of the better likenesses in the football statue world) is a fitting tribute. Showing him shaping up to strike the ball (into the top corner no doubt) it also features a plaque detailing his many achievements.
Enter the door just behind Eusébio and you’ll encounter another statue of a figure from Benfica’s 1960’s glory days…
The Curse of Guttmann
Bela Guttmann was the manager when Benfica won their two European Cups in the 1960’s, beating Barcelona in 1961 and then retaining it against Real Madrid the following year.
But after the second final he went to the board to ask for a pay rise and when his request was rejected, he quit and allegedly cursed the club, saying “not in a hundred years from now will Benfica ever be European champion.”
Benfica went on to reach the final three more times in that decade and lost all three, against Milan, Inter and Manchester United. In the 1980’s they were beaten in a UEFA Cup Final by Anderlecht and then another European Cup decider by PSV Eindhoven. When they reached the 1990 final against Milan, Eusebio allegedly visited Guttmann’s grave in Vienna, the host city for the final, to pray for the curse to be lifted. They lost.
In 2013 they reached another Europa League Final, but lost to a last-minute Chelsea goal so the following year, as part of the club’s 110th anniversary celebrations, a statue of Guttmann holding the two European Cups he helped the club win was unveiled at the stadium, with people inevitably linking this to another attempt to break the curse.
When they reached the Europa League Final again that season players and management alike went to great lengths to downplay the curse ahead of their meeting with Sevilla. They lost on penalties. The good news for Benfica fans is that there are only 42 years to go…
Rather unusually there is a small shopping centre located on one side of the ground which not only contains two official club shops, but a number of other Benfica-related stores, a branch of the electronics chain Media Markt (fun fact: in 2020 I’m still receiving regular e-mails from them in Portuguese as a result of registering to use their wi-fi back in 2016) and a couple of cafés.
I was mostly concerned with the club shops and soon realised an important distinction between them. One only sold the club’s Adidas-branded merchandise, while the other sold all kinds of stuff with the Benfica logo, including unbranded versions of the current kits – if you didn’t feel like shelling out €60-€70 for the real deal, these were significantly cheaper (and I did spot quite a few people wearing them around the ground on matchday) even if they did look a bit like fakes from a market stall.
Inside the Stadium
The stadium tour starts in the room next to Guttmann’s statue and takes you all through the venue.
Starting off up in the stands, there’s a short presentation about the stadium’s history delivered in Portuguese and English by the guide and then ample time for taking photos of the panoramic views of the stadium. The tour then moves inside, taking in the corporate facilities and presentations surrounding models of both the old and new versions of the stadium and the Benfica training complex.
It then takes in the press room, the home dressing room and the club hall of fame, featuring past legends and then through the tunnel and out to pitch side.
And last but not least, as you make your way around the pitch to the exit, you can see one of the three club eagles who live in the ground and are trained to fly around the stadium prior to kick off in every home game.
Matchday under the lights
1. Getting Inside
My 2019 visit enabled me to do the one thing I hadn’t been able to in 2016 – see a match.
Back in 2016, Benfica were away, so I instead saw their great rivals Sporting play and the bar for a match day experience in Lisbon was set very high.
The approach to the Estadio da Luz is quite something. After getting out of the Metro at Colegio Militar/Luz, you cross the road and make your way past the numerous souvenir stalls that line the footpaths before heading into the tunnel decorated with imposing murals depicting eagles, fire, fans waving banners and so on.
I’d scouted out my route into the ground the previous day so getting inside was relatively straightforward, despite the best efforts of the security staff who, in contrast to the quite lax security checks I was used to in Spain, almost made me empty every single pocket of my bag before allowing me through,
I found my seat quickly enough and settled into my seat to enjoy some of the pre-match festivities which included a dancing performance by some men in vaguely African tribal costume. It wasn’t that entertaining and my stomach was starting to rumble, feeling the effects of having eaten lunch comparatively early in the day. So I joined the line for a pre-match bifana.
If you don’t already know, a bifana is a traditional Portuguese marinated pork sandwich and they are delicious. And Benfica had a very organised system for collecting them, whereby I ordered and paid while standing in the line and by the time I reached the front, my order was ready for collection.
It wasn’t the best one I had on that trip to Lisbon – that honour goes to the one I had from As Bifanas do Afonso a couple of days later – but it certainly hit the spot and helped pass a bit of time in the build-up to kick off.
When the game was finally about to get underway, the noise level went up a few notches. The players came out to the club anthem with almost the entire stadium standing and holding their red scarves aloft. I felt a wee bit left out.
2. The Joao Félix Show
Once the game got underway one player stood out above all the others. Teenage prodigy João Félix had been attracting rave reviews for his performances over the previous few weeks and I would leave the Estadio da Luz that evening as a fully paid-up member of the hype train.
Benfica were neck-and-neck with FC Porto in the title race and needed a win over Vitória Setúbal to keep their slim lead intact.
Fortunately for the home fans, it only took Félix a few minutes to help set them on their way. He supplied the cross from the right flank which Rafa flicked into the net, via the post, with his heel. Félix then won a penalty, his shot being blocked by an outstretched hand, but Pizzi couldn’t convert from the spot.
However, within a few minutes Benfica did make it 2-0. Félix capitalised on some hesitant defending to pick up the ball and surrounded by three defenders, simply laid it off to Rafa, who drilled it into the bottom corner.
Considering how they had dominated up to that point, it very much looked like game, set and match to the hosts, but Setúbal had other ideas and before the break, hit back with a well-worked goal of their own, featuring a nutmeg, a neat lay-off and a well-hit shot from Nuno Valente (alas not that one, he’s over 40 now) which put them right back in the contest.
For the first time, I could sense the expectant home crowd getting a bit restless. The Liga NOS title race was so tight that any slip-up could have catastrophic repercussions. Benfica had won the title in every season from 2013/14 to 2016/17 but had relinquished it to their hated northern rivals FC Porto in 2018. Everywhere around the stadium that weekend I’d seen references to Reconquista 37 – their campaign to win back their 37th title. Only victory would suffice!
Thankfully for them, the boy wonder stepped up to the plate again. Pizzi put the ball into the box and Félix lashed it first time into the net before running behind the goal to celebrate with his brother, who was a ball boy that evening. Top scorer Haris Seferovic. A late penalty for Sétubal proved to be little more than a consolation. Benfica had done their job well and remained clear at the top of the table, going on to lift the title by two points, scoring a club record 103 goals in the process.
I left the ground surrounded by very happy home fans – some even asked me about the red Coleraine away shirt (2010-2012 vintage) that I’d worn in an attempt to blend in! All in all, a successful night!