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Doug Mulliken, an American freelance journalist and photographer based in Barcelona, gets benfiquismo real bad ... (posted 30/03/06)

Walk around Lisbon's rua Augusta or Praça do Rossio enough and you will sooner or later encounter the typical tourist shops that sell scarves, flags, and little fat clay figures painted with red, blue or green shirts that say things like "dono da casa" [man of the house] or something similar. You can also find t-shirts with the respective Benfica, FC Porto and Sporting emblems printed on them, each with their own little slogan – the Porto shirt says something like "Ser do FC Porto é ser ganhador!" [You're a winner if you're FC Porto]. The Sporting shirt, from what I can tell, doesn't actually say anything. The Benfica shirt, however, says "Ser do Benfica é ser diferente!" – "To be a Benfica fan means to be different!"

The truth of that statement is questionable, considering that as it is the club with the most sócios in the world, it seems that being a benfiquista is about the most undifferent thing you can do. But, nevertheless, there is something about that t-shirt that strikes me as true. Benfica is not like most clubs. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Benfica is completely unique in the world. The past 5 days have made this blatantly clear to me. This article was originally going to be a chronicle of my trip to Lisbon with my parents over the weekend. However, I've realized that the trip was just a small part of something much bigger.

I guess I should start off by explaining myself a bit. I am not Portuguese. I don't have any Portuguese family. I had never even been to Portugal when I first started following Benfica. It really happened by accident – I did a presentation for my Portuguese class on the Casa do Benfica in Cambridge, and then decided that I liked watching the matches there so went back. What interested me then, and what I still find fascinating, is the way Portuguese emigrants have used the idea of getting together to support a team as the basis for the construction of their culture and society in foreign countries. Casas do Benfica are much more than just places for the Portuguese to watch football matches, however, as the basement of the Casa do Benfica in Cambridge tellingly proved: watching football matches is the basis from which all other activities spring. For many Portuguese living in foreign countries, being a Benfica fan is a large part of what makes them Portuguese.

I was lucky enough to be at the Estadio da Luz last Saturday night. I saw Benfica beat Sporting Braga in front of 50,000 people. I saw Vitória, Benfica's eagle mascot, fly down from the rafters, circling around the stadium, soaring with wide-spread wings, and when she landed on top of Benfica's emblem, I stood up and screamed, covered in goose bumps just like everyone else. When Nuno Gomes flicked the ball into the net in the 2nd minute, I sung "glorioso SLB" just like everyone else.

As a foreigner, the second you mention Benfica, the majority of people you meet in Lisbon will open up to you and have a conversation with you as if you were talking to a friend and not a random guy on the street. Benfica, the biggest and most important club in the country, is the great leveller. That is not the case everywhere you go.

Yesterday, Benfica played Barcelona in the Champions League. (In case you didn't know.) I live in Barcelona, and I was watching the game in a bar on my street, decked out in Benfica shirt, Benfica scarf and Benfica hat. I was the only Benfica fan in the entire bar, which I found out later had over 200 people in it. When Thiago Motta blatantly handled the ball in Barcelona's area, I started screaming at the top of my lungs, part Spanish, part Portuguese, part English. The great leveller.

After walking around Lisbon all weekend, seeing the Benfica match, and having a good think, I decided on Monday before I left to become a sócio of the club. Including me, there are three Benfica sócios in all of Barcelona, the second biggest city in Spain, the only country that shares a border with Portugal. As funny as it may seem, the best place to go if you don't want to find Portuguese people is Spain. Everywhere else, however, you'll find Benfica fans. Next week the reported 6 million people who follow Benfica worldwide, and however many millions more who will tune in just to watch good football, will have their eyes set on the Camp Nou, Barcelona's gigantic, 50 year old stadium.

Benfica have been allocated 5,000 tickets for the game. Next Wednesday, 4,999 Portuguese Benfica fans will be stuck up in the highest level of the stadium, where the action on the field seems more like a videogame than a live match. I'll be there too. I probably don't deserve it, but I have a ticket. I'm not Portuguese, I haven't followed Benfica my entire life, but the team is important to me. And that's what counts, right? So I'll be there, singing "Sou, soooooooou, Sou, soooooooou, BENFIIIIIIIIIIICA" with the others, because that's the truth: I'm not Portuguese, I'm not a lifelong fan, but I am Benfica.

Because, as those t-shirts I mentioned said, being an FC Porto fan means being a winner. But being a Benfica fans means being different. Because FC Porto is a big club because it's won lots of league and cup titles and has won the Champions League and UEFA cup in this century. But Benfica is a HUGE club, regardless of what happens next week. Benfica is a huge club because when Pedro Mantorras scored the fourth goal in a 4-0 defeat of Boavista in January of last year, after having been injured for the lion's share of the previous two and a half years, the fans celebrated as if they had just won the Intercontinental Cup. Benfica is a huge club because of its fans. No amount of titles replaces 150,000 sócios.


Doug Mulliken, an American freelance journalist and photographer based in Barcelona, observes Catalán acceptance ... or not ... of Portuguese international midfielder Deco (posted 24/02/06)


Aside from the 5-1 thumping that FC Barcelona handed out to Real Betis last Saturday night, that Ronaldinho banner was probably the most talked about piece of sporting news here in Barcelona. You see, there's just something about Barça's Brazilian talisman, and every goofy-grinned step he takes endears him even more to most Catalans. For example, last Saturday, after the final whistle, Ronaldinho stripped off his shirt and, instead of handing it to one of the Betis players, he ran over to the sideline where a man holding a new-born baby was standing behind a bed- sheet painted with the slogan from Ronaldinho's Danet-brand pudding adverts. To the surprise and delight of everyone present, 'Ronnie' handed his shirt to the man/child duo and walked off. Didn't even ask for a Danet in return.

I only bring this story up to highlight the contrasting styles of Barcelona's two most influential players. Say what you will about Eto'o, a world class striker if ever there was one, but the fact remains that FC Barcelona are a different team without Ronaldinho and Anderson Luis de Souza, better known as Deco. This importance has been even more noticeable since Barça's other midfield organiser, Xavi, went down with a season-ending knee injury in December. Despite his importance to the team, however, Deco has always seemed to be something of a man apart here in Cataluña, both with the fans and the media, the reasons for which are not entirely clear.

The coldness (for want of a better word) that Deco gets from a great majority of the public here is very noticeable. Whereas Ronaldinho can do no wrong, Deco can hardly do any right. Yes, the media has grudgingly accepted that he is one of the team's craques, or star players, yet he has had to earn that title, rather than have it bestowed upon him, which is the typical modus operandum here in Spain. Ronaldinho is a craque because he passes with his back and rejected Manchester for Barcelona. Eto'o is a craque because he scores against Real Madrid and very publicly rejected los merengues in the summer of 2004. Deco? Well, that's tougher. Doesn't score much. Doesn't publicly hate Real Madrid. Doesn't smile a whole lot. He does complain about the state of the Camp Nou pitch. (Considering the recent reports about Chelsea's swamp, it seems that Barcelona can't escape bad pitches.) He did make some comments about the atmosphere in the changing room earlier in the year. He seems to be somewhat peeved when he isn't able to play. So what is it, then? What makes Deco the third craque in Barcelona's triumvirate? Oh yeah, that's it: when Deco don't play, Barcelona don't win.

Barcelona want their Brazilians to fit into categories. Forwards need to play with flair – Ronaldinho, Romario and Rivaldo all fit that description perfectly. If they're wingbacks, they need to be able to come up and help out every now and again – Belletti and Sylvinho fit that to a T. Centrebacks need to be stylish on the ball – Edmilson will do. Yet Deco ... Deco is the Brazilian that everyone forgets. Neither his play nor his personality are especially outgoing, and on the rare occasion that he does talk, it's generally a pretty calm affair. The one time it was not, however, the media turned on him: earlier this season, Deco openly criticised the quality of Barça's pitch, wondering why so many players, from Larsson to Thiago Motta to Gabri to Edmilson, have gone down with serious knee injuries in the last two years. For whatever reason, the media here seemed to be personally offended, with only a handful of journalists willing to defend the 'naturalised-Portuguese-Brazilian.' (As he is so often referred to in the dailies, lest we forget that he doesn't wear the Brazil shirt for internationals). The criticism was such that a cartoon was published with a caricature of Deco holding up a mutilated hand, alluding to a finger injury picked up on a visit to Panathinaikos in the Champions League, which ultimately required surgery, and saying something along the lines of: "the pitch is so bad, I even blame my finger injury on it!" Needless to say, no such cartoons of Ronaldinho exist.

The big talk this week, of course, is the Chelsea-FCB Champions League tie [1-2], which has brought a new wave of speculation over Deco's future. Some say he's not happy here, despite repeatedly stating the opposite every time he's been interviewed. Others say that Frank Rijkaard would be happy to off-load him if Frank Lampard, he of the Catalan wife and daughter, would come the other way. And then, every now and then, an article pops up out of nowhere, with Deco saying he had the opportunity to go to Chelsea in 2004, yet chose Barcelona, where he'd like to stay.

Unfortunately for Brazil-ona's most Portuguese of Brazilians, when the Catalan press is involved, it's never that easy.

[Deco was influential in Barcelona's win over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge]

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An excrutiatingly painful affair - (a look back at the 2004/05 season)
(posted 08/06/05)

FC Porto fan Alexandre Burmester casts an embittered eye over his club's less-than-famous fortunes this season.

Yes, "they think it's all over... well, it is now!" And thank God for that, I should add! This was the season when FC Porto were expected ("dreaded" is the proper word if you happen to live in Lisbon or in one of those footballing deserts where the natives all seem to support Benfica) to walk all over the opposition once again and, by doing so, complete their second hat-trick of League titles. It was not to be, though. Of course it's true that after dropping 24 (!) points at home we only finished three points behind the eventual champions, but this only illustrates the extent of the disaster! Let us not forget that our payroll is twice as large as Sporting's and 60% to 70% larger than Benfica's! Let's keep in mind the vast array of talent (or so we thought) that the club signed in the pre-season, almost to the point of making us forget those that departed.

It is now easy for the chairman (Jorge Nuno Pinto da Costa) to say that the root of the problem goes back to April when the club realised that José Mourinho would be leaving, thus taking a couple of players with him and forcing us to go back to the drawing board (this was apparently after Mourinho had lunch at a restaurant just south of Porto with Peter Kenyon, whom we're all sure he just accidentally met there, at a time when Porto and Chelsea could still face each other in the Champions League). After that the chairman hired three coaches, one of them, the hapless Luigi del Neri, having failed to be in charge of a single official match! To say nothing of the truck-loads of Brazilians arriving in pre-season or in the January transfer window.

Yes, we simply handed it to them. Benfica, as everyone could witness, were pitiful. They couldn't get past Anderlecht in the 3rd qualifying round of the Champions League, and Anderlecht didn't win a single point in the group stage of the competition! They lost seven games in all in the League (one more than our good selves) and ended up with the lowest points total of all time for a championship-winning team (bearing in mind the number of teams competing and the points awarded for wins). It would have been less dismal to lose out to Sporting, but those wretched souls will always make sure that they and not somebody else will be the joke of the season. According to their chairman (António Dias da Cunha), they came within seven minutes of winning the League and within half-an-hour of taking the UEFA Cup. The fact that they finished 3rd in the league and were comprehensively beaten in the UEFA Cup Final (by a Russian team we had disposed of without too much trouble in the Champions League) does not seem to impress them. This is because, as everybody should know, only sinister and diabolical forces prevent that supposedly posh club from winning the title year-in, year-out!

Let's see what the new season will bring. A new coach, the Dutchman Co Adriaanse, previously in charge of AZ Alkmaar, has been hired. But still the player merry-go-round seems unstoppable.

I'll be back to report on the proceedings. With a heavy heart I bid you farewell ... for now!

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Where some of the 'six million' are (posted 27/05/05)

Regular contributor Doug Mulliken goes down to his local Casa do Benfica to enjoy Benfica's first title in eleven years ... despite his disappointment from other quarters ...

Sunday was not an easy day for me to be a football fan. You see, when it comes to football, I am a 'bhoy'. For those who might not follow the daily ins-and-outs of Scottish football, that means I am a Glasgow Celtic supporter. This website, however, is, not, so it is understandable if some readers are wondering why I am even talking about Celtic. The answer is fairly simple: you see, last Sunday Celtic and Benfica found themselves in very similar circumstances. Both teams were one result away from their respective league titles. Additionally, both teams had the possibility to secure League-Cup doubles, assuming everything on Sunday went to plan.

Celtic had, however, somehow contrived to lose the league title in the last 3 minutes of the last game of the season. Unlike Benfica, who were not to be denied on Sunday. I seriously considered not even making my way down to Elm St. after I found out the Celtic result. I knew, though, that History (the kind with the big 'H') was likely to be made and I ought to be there to see it happen. As might be expected, I was not the only person interested in seeing Benfica win, so it should come as no surprise that the familiar basement was, this time, absolutely packed, at least 150 men staring at the big screen, and more upstairs in the main hall.

The match was, of course, a tense affair; I was in no mood to shout and neither were most of the red-clad men in the room (albeit for different reasons). That all changed, however, when Simao scored his penalty. BEN-FI-CA BEN-FI-CA resounded around the entire building; it would not have been surprising if the chant were audible at the Casa do Sporting a few miles down the road. The nervous mood returned, nevertheless, when Luisao forgot the reason for his very existence (that would be defending) and let Boavista back into the game.

The tension remained, like the smell of cigarette smoke in a wool jacket, for all of half-time and almost the entire second half. There was virtually no difference between the scenes that were continually shown on the television of Benfica supporters biting their lips and clutching their scarves and the men who surrounded me, arms crossed, brows furrowed, cracking their knuckles. Interestingly, however, many of the supporters were more interested in the match happening on the other side of Porto, between FC Porto and Academica; if Porto did not win, Benfica were assured the title, regardless of the final score at the Bessa. Unsurprisingly, then, when Academica scored to pull that match level, the celebrations in Casa do Benfica #17 began.

Men jumped around, hugged each other, waved Benfica scarves, flags, indeed even jerseys in the air and acted like you would during a huge rainstorm after 11 years of drought. One man, to the amusement of us all, came storming down the stairs into the basement, shirt off, beer gut and shoulder hair for all to see, slapping the Benfica logo he had tattooed onto his arm, asking anyone within range to kiss it. I politely declined, though I offered to take a picture of it for posterity.

When the final whistle blew, the room at last exploded, men climbed onto chairs and champagne bottles appeared out of nowhere, accompanied of course by paper cups. As the men moved out of the basement and into the sunlight, the local town drunks (they still exist in this part of Massachusetts) began shaking hands with everyone, mumbling "Benfica, yeah, Benfica", in the hope perhaps of receiving a free drink. Images of people in Portugal celebrating in all parts of the country matched our own celebrations, as the kids of the Casa-sponsored youth soccer team (a group of 10-year olds in white shirts with the Benfica logo on the chest and BENFICA printed across the back) locked arms with middle-aged men and began to twirl around in a circle, chanting "SLB-SLB-SLB-SLB". Benfica, then, had triumphed, and all that remains is the Taça de Portugal on Sunday, where a victory for the Eagles would surely put more than a decade of hurt finally behind them.

I didn't really understand the importance of Benfica's win, however, until a day later, when I saw two Portuguese friends of mine, neither of whom was at the Casa on Sunday. Both of them had a look of happiness and relief I have rarely seen in the Portuguese living in America. Saudade, that most Portuguese of emotions, had completely vanished from their faces, replaced by happiness and relief. I've been following Benfica for two years, not long enough to fully appreciate the magnitude of this victory. But seeing the look on my friends' faces shows me how important Benfica is. For the last 11 years, the world as they knew it had been confusing; Benfica, the biggest team in Portugal, couldn't manage to win, couldn't manage to live up to their own high expectations. Finally, on Sunday, the world for my Portuguese friends, and for Benfica fans all over the world, returned to normality.

Sadly, pathetically, I was too distracted by Celtic's loss (and remain so) to fully appreciate the significance of the day. But it is nice to know that Simao, Nuno Gomes, Miguel et al get to write their names in Benfica history for the right reasons; not as the team that blew the league on the last day, but as the team that restored Benfica to past glory.

Hail, hail, Glorioso.

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Distant clássico (posted 30/10/04)

Regular contributor Doug Mulliken witnesses the passions a Benfica v FC Porto clássico can generate, even from a distance.

I tore my meniscus, the relatively unknown cartilage between leg bones that allows one to walk, over the summer and have been forced to hobble around on crutches for the past month, so the idea of going three miles down the road to my local Casa do Benfica was not exactly tempting. However, Benfica only get one Porto clássico a year at home, at least in the Liga, so I figured that if ever there was the time to make an effort, Sunday, October 17 was the day.

As I hopped awkwardly down the stairs to enter the back-door basement of the building, I could already hear the commentators giving play-by-play in Portuguese, and my watch told me I was a few minutes late, so I was quite surprised to open the heavy red door and see not only over 100 people crowded in the small room, but also that the score read 1-0 already — I had missed Porto's goal. A few minutes of clumsy walking later and I was seated, watching the big screen that had been installed on the bar wall for the game.

The first half was filled with a good deal of nothing as far as Benfica was concerned; the room broke into applause and isso é's when Karadas was subbed on. Unfortunately, that was about the only thing to get a good reaction for the first 45 minutes. During the interval, I took pictures of people in the club, one of whom told me after the fact that I shouldn't be taking pictures of him, he was a portista. Apparently, the fact that I didn't mind that he was a Porto fan was all he needed to start the world's most profound conversation, for soon he began talking at me as if I were charging him $100 an hour. Unfortunately, I couldn't hear a word of what he said, and what little I could hear made absolutely no sense, thanks in large part to the fact that he was, as I was made rapidly aware, quite drunk. My friend José told me to ignore him; however, it became more and more difficult to do so, especially after Seitaridis obviously fouled Karadas in the area.

As Karadas fell and play continued, the room, by now absolutely packed with people, virtually exploded into a single, outraged protest. Those seated stood (with the exception of yours truly) and those standing raised the arms and everyone yelled that universal football protest that is "EHH HEY HEY HEY!!!" The only other person in the room not to stand up was the drunken portista to my right, who sat the foul out as if nothing had happened. This was, for the benfiquistas surrounding me, the last straw. Three men began yelling at our drunken friend, voices raised between all involved now, and then, suddenly, the portista picked up his chair and stormed off. No one was sad to see him leave.

Of course, the Karadas no-call penalty was nothing compared to what was to come, and when Petit's blast slipped through Vitor Baia's hands and crossed the line, if only for a millisecond, the room erupted in one giant roar of orgasmic emotion. Everyone around me, including myself, was saying "it's a goal, it's a goal, it went over, it went over," repeating that mantra for five minutes. When, at last, the match officials decided it had not, in fact, been a goal, the room again exploded, this time in an intense anger that wasn't even seen when as Águias lost 3-2 at Nacional last year.

The game ended quite soon after that. The only thing to really mark the passing of time was a few handshakes of agreement about the goal that is so frequent between men of a certain generation; however, the lights came on and Benfica had lost, more than a little questionably. The fisticuffs that almost erupted between the lone Porto fan and the benfiquistas surrounding me, I realized, mirrored almost uncannily the game itself — Benfica made a lot of noise but in the end it was Porto who stole the points and ran home, shouting over their shoulder the whole time.

It will be interesting to see what happens when the boys in red travel north later in the season.

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Porto Get Ready! (posted 15/07/04)

Alexandre Burmester, an FC Porto fan, is optimistic about the coming season.

Pre-season training at FC Porto this week and apparently the squad may yet undergo the odd change, apart from the five players who are surplus to requirements, given the fact that Del Neri only wants 25 players.

The Chairman may have said that as far as he's concernd no more players will be signed, but I don't think he'll be able to resist the temptation of making the lagartos (the 'lizards', derogatory nickname given to Sporting Lisbon by their rivals) look bad again by signing Hugo Viana from Newcastle. Mind you, he'd be a great signing, even if Sporting were not part of his thus-far not-so-illustrious past!

Talking of transfer-market movement by the Big Three, it really is pathetic to watch the contortions of the Benfica and Sporting boards trying to sign someone decent! (Apart from being pathetic, it's also great fun, of course!)

But let's leave those two supposedly great clubs from the capital alone for a moment and let's concentrate on the Dragons, as they prepare for a challenging season. First, the new coach.

Quite frankly, I'm not all that sad to see Mourinho go, after all the theatrics surrounding his exit to Chelsky, like not joining the players to celebrate the Champions League triumph at Gelsenkirchen and other similar tantrums. He seems to think he's bigger than FC Porto (therefore, he probably thinks he's bigger than Chelsky, too) and although we'll always remember him and his fundamental part in our victories over the past couple of seasons, we can't help but note the contrast between him and Artur Jorge when he left after the 1987 European Cup triumph. Which is, in fact, a nice parallel to draw on.

Although so far we've only lost one of our fundamental players – Deco – and have signed some useful ones and some very good ones, it's natural that people should worry about the coming season after so much success. Well, take a look back at 1987: very similar, actually. One of our best players left us that summer – Paulo Futre – and so did the coach, who went to France. In came the Croatian coach Tomislav Ivic and back from two loan spells came Rui Barros and we won the League by 15 points (remember it was still only two points for a win), the Cup (our first domestic double since 1956!), the European Super Cup and the Intercontinental Cup.

True, Real Madrid knocked us out of the European Cup in the second round, but with the current format we are likely to still be around come March and the knock-out stages, which has always been our aim since the creation of the Champions League, let's be honest! But on the domestic front, I here and now make the prediction that we'll be champions again, and by at least 6 points.

Our final advantage will depend on our progress in the Champions League, bearing in mind that the Lisbon midgets will bow out of Europe pretty early on, unless luck keeps on protecting Benfica against the likes of Rosenborg, while Sporting, true to form, will be knocked out in the 2nd or 3rd round of the UEFA Cup by some anonymous outfit from somewhere in Central Europe ... or Turkey - remember Gençlerbilighi? (Or whatever their name was!)

I'll be back.

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Eight days in June (posted 24/06/04)

Regular contributor Doug Mulliken witnesses Spain's reaction to Euro 2004 failure.

"This failure has two faces," the headline to As, one of Madrid's two sports dailies, read on Tuesday morning. Above the headline was a picture of Iñaki Saez, perhaps the most maligned man in Iberia this week, and Real Federación Española de Fútbol (RFEF) head Angel Villar. That, it seems, is the general mood of affairs here in Spain's capital – blame it on the suits and whistles. If the sports tabloids are anything to go by then Spain lost not because their captain and star player has been hiding on Sedna (the recently discovered "planet" beyond Pluto) since about the time of that penaltí político against Valencia back in February. Nor is it because, despite the many superstitious hairstyles he sported, Fernando Torres just couldn't manage to find goal (unlucky, really; Torres deserved to score on many opportunities this tournament). It has nothing to do, either, with the tournament-ending injury during training camp to right-back and defensive rock Salgado, meaning that a tired and relatively inexperienced Raul Bravo had to assume international responsibilities. In fact, it has very little whatsoever to do with the people who actually lost the game.

Rather, the fallmen, or more accurately fallman, is (and was always bound to be, thanks to the nature of the sport) head coach Iñaki Saez. Villar just gets thrown in because he would have the temerity to actually support Saez after the fracaso that was Euro 2004. The sporting press harbours so much disdain for Saez at the moment that Marca, the bigger and somewhat more respectable of Madrid's two sports papers, featured a headline on Tuesday morning that ran "España necesita un 'Sabio'," which translates as "Spain needs a 'wiseman'," but also refers to the nickname of Luis Aragonés, a man who started his football career around the same time as Bobby Robson. Spain, some feel, needs this sabiduria, knowledge, because Saez is not a good enough tactician. It is easy after the fact to say that Raúl should have been dropped in favor of Valerón, but let's face facts, shall we? If Saez had actually done that and Spain had still lost, would the press be hailing Saez's bravery?

Sunday night, during half-time of the Iberian guerra, as Portugal's coach Felipe Scolari referred to it, the television news showed the streets of Valencia (the self-proclaimed loudest city in the world) completely empty, suggesting that the entire country had stopped to watch the game. In Madrid you didn't need to watch the game to know what was going on: every time Spain shot wide or the ball ricocheted off the post you could hear all of Madrid (a city that prides itself on its noise) let out a collective sigh of despair. In fact, if there is one real tragedy for Spain and their early exit, it would certainly be that never before, and perhaps never again, has Spain had such a strong contingent of fans. The presence of the Furia Roja, as the fans are named, was supposed to be the key that finally unlocked the doors to the semi-finals. Mahou, official beer sponsor of the team and the fans (such a thing is possible in today's world), ran an advert in all the sports dailies on Monday: "lo que nunca perdereis es nuestro apoyo" ("the thing you'll never lose is our support.")

As fine as that sounds, the truth of the matter is that in a couple of months the Spanish league will kick off again and, as Madrileños pull on their white shirts and Catalans start singing Catalunya's quasi-national anthem (the FC Barcelona hymn), people will most probably forget that the Spanish national team actually exists. Although the 2006 World Cup is a short plane ride away in Germany, after the decepción of this tournament, it is hard to believe that many Spaniards will ever be as excited about their selección as they were for eight days in June.

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FC Porto waxing, Benfica on the wane (posted 05/05/04)

Doug Mulliken describes how FC Porto are becoming more and more of a force in Portuguese football ... at the expense of old rivals.

With FC Porto securing the first Champions League final spot for a Portuguese club since SL Benfica 14 years ago, the obvious question begs asking: which of the so-called Big Three of Portuguese football (FC Porto, SL Benfica and Sporting Clube de Portugal) is the biggest of them all?

The knee-jerk answer from any Portuguese living outside of the country's borders would be Benfica. Benfica head every category – 30 times League champions, 23 times champions of the Taça de Portugal, 2 European Cups, plus another 5 times runners-up. Porto, in comparison, have 19 League titles (including this year) and only 12 Taças, in addition to their 1987 European Cup title. In addition to the Champions League final that Porto will be disputing on the 26th of this month, they will be squaring off with Benfica on the 16th for the Taça as both attempt to add to their respective trophy cases. Sporting, 18 times League winners and 13 times lifters of the Taça, have a lone Cup Winners Cup to their international record.

What this all adds up to, then, is the numbers telling one story – Benfica is the most successful team in Portugal and therefore also the most popular – and recent history telling another. For, despite dominating Portugal, Benfica have not won a League championship since 1994, and the last trophy os Encarnados had their hands on was the 1996 Taça. Porto, on the other hand, dominated the 1990s, winning 7 titles in 10 years and 5 in a row. That domination has continued into the 21st century, as back-to-back League titles and European competition finals have proved. If anything, Porto's dominance has only been strengthened as the years have passed, considering that this time last year os Dragões were playing in the UEFA Cup.

Nevertheless, the predominance of Casas do Benfica throughout the world are a testament to the staying power of four (or more) decades of benfiquista dominance. From Toronto, Canada to Pretoria, South Africa and everywhere in between, red and white Casas pop up wherever Portuguese people have settled.

However, the obsession that ex-patriate Portuguese have for as Aguias is not always shared by former compatriots in Portugal. While it would not be correct to say that FC Porto are the most popular club in the country, they are certainly catching up on their Lisbon rivals.

I recently spent a week in Portugal, and in virtually every sports shop there was as good a chance, if not better, of finding FC Porto home and away shirts as there was of finding Benfica or Sporting's. I was at a restaurant in the Alfama district of Lisbon, widely considered to be the oldest, most traditional Lisbon neighbourhood. When the waiter brought the bill, he handed me a pen emblazoned with the FC Porto shield. I asked him if it was just a pen or if he was a Portista, to which he replied: "Sou, sim. O FC Porto é o maior clube de Portugal" – "I am, yeah. FC Porto is the biggest club in Portugal."

History, and the millions of Portuguese (and their offspring) living outside of Portugal might disagree with my waiter. However, in this, Benfica's Centenary year, you can't help the feeling that, rather like Liverpool in England, it is history that is one of the many monkeys hanging on the club's back. When Porto, the reigning power of Portuguese football, and Benfica, the sleeping (at this point perhaps 'hibernating' is a more appropriate word) giant, meet in the final of the Taça, one club will be looking to continue the impressive run of what could be consecutive trebles, and the other will be looking to win their first trophy in 8 years.

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178 Elm St (posted 18/02/04)

Doug Mulliken describes a Benfica Casa, one of many spread around the world and wherever there are football-mad Portuguese.

The awning over the door was bright red despite the obvious weathering, no doubt the product of five Cambridge winters, when temperatures regularly hit –10C and a metre of snowfall in a month is not unheard of; Casa do Benfica da Nova Inglaterra written in big, white letters, letting me know that this was, indeed, the place I wanted to be. The front door, red, metal and imposing, was locked, so I walked around to the side entrance – a staircase took me down, underneath a fire escape, and I was confronted with yet another big red door. Above the stairs some guys, mid-twenties, wearing leather jackets with fur collars, were smoking cigarettes, speaking Portuguese about who-knows-what. I thought it was probably about me, but the doors were intimidating enough, so I chose not to ask. Instead, I opened the door and walked into a bar/Benfica shrine. All eyes in the room stopped and stared.

The Casa do Benfica in Cambridge is a three-storey building. The basement has been converted into a bar, two televisions placed opposite each other in the corners of the room broadcast Portuguese television. The television opposite the bar overlooks maybe twenty foldable metal chairs; the first day I was there they were all empty. Men wearing work clothes stood around the pool table, trying to win a few bucks; there is also a foosball table with Benfica and Sporting shirts painted onto the foos-men. The wood-paneled walls are covered with Benfica team pictures ranging from the 1950s to today. Most of the pictures feature Eusébio, Benfica's (and Portugal's) best ever player. There is a large bar that stretches along one wall of the room, Portuguese beer is served in big or small bottles, as well as any number of port wines. Luís Mota, the 2003 president of the Casa, recognizes me – I had talked to him over the phone earlier and he realizes this obviously non-Portuguese guy must be the one he had talked to earlier in the week.

Eastern Massachusetts has one of the largest Portuguese populations in the United States. Cambridge, the storied home of Harvard and MIT, has a particularly large Portuguese community. The majority of the Portuguese who now live in Cambridge are from the Azores – hardware shops fly both the Portuguese and Azorean flags. When I ask Luìs why so many Azoreans are Benfica fans, despite the presence of Santa Clara, just recently relegated from the ranks of the SuperLiga, he tells me that "Benfica's the best club in Portugal; everyone's a Benfica fan. My daughter is a Benfica fan, all the kids are Benfica fans. That's how it works."

"Most of the people in the club," Luís tells me, "have been to Portugal, have seen the Estádio da Luz. I actually got to go on the field and hold the banner of this Casa do Benfica before a game." He takes me upstairs, shows me the plaque commemorating the casting of the statue of Eusebio that stands outside the Nova Luz. Luis tells me, "Eusébio came here to inaugurate this building, and he posed for the statue that is outside the stadium now." The walls upstairs, on both floors, are painted white with red trim. More photos of old Benfica teams cover the walls. It looks the way a building devoted to a team of the working class should look. On the second floor there is a large television for watching games on big screen, and upstairs is a banquet hall. It seems like going to Portugal acts as a sort of rite of passage for most of the Portuguese in Cambridge. Since many are from the Azores, if they do not go to Portugal as adults, after having saved money in the United States, they might never. In that respect, Benfica acts as a motivator for going – not only to see "the motherland," if you will, but also to visit the Estadio da Luz. It's not called o catedral for nothing.

I ask Luis if Benfica fans in the US follow Benfica more devoutly than Benfica fans in Portugal do. He tells me he thinks so, because of the bonding that is created by coming together every weekend. Benfica, it seems, represents something much more than just a football team. The Casa do Benfica is the centre for the majority of the Portuguese community in and around Cambridge. Luís himself lives a 5-minute-walk away. "You should come back for a game," Luís tells me.

I arrive back at the Casa do Benfica just after kick-off of the Benfica – Porto clássico. The chairs around the television are full now. Luís waves at me as I enter, and I walk up to the bar and ask for a beer; the waitress gives me a small bottle of Sagres. Surrounded by Portuguese-Americans, watching football on TV for the first time in months, I feel strangely at ease. My Portuguese is getting better, so I can make out more of what people are saying around me, and feel comfortable talking to them. I go upstairs and there are more people watching the game on the big screen. When Benfica score, with a brilliant Simão chip, the men go crazy. One runs over and slaps his body against the wall, just under a picture of Benfica's European Cup winning side of 1962. Another runs mini-laps around the room, screaming Portuguese swear words in glee.

Although the game is nothing special, Benfica play a solid second half and should have won. When a shot glances off the crossbar, the men scream and slap their thighs, disgusted at such a miss. The game ends before it began, and I find myself heading downstairs to say goodbye to Luís. As I walk out I hand him an application for membership to the club, which he takes with a smile.

In many parts of the greater-Boston area, still heavily Puritan through the passing of time, Sunday morning and early afternoon is reserved for attending church services and praising a higher power. Sunday afternoons for Sport Lisboa e Benfica fans stuck in a frigid New England winter are devoted to a different kind of worship, one with much more visible results. Even if it's a 1-1 tie against an undefeated team.


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