Portuguese men o' war: why Benfica vs Sporting is more than a game

When Eagles meet Lizards, there's plenty of venom but rarely violence at Lisbon's fiercest derby. For the December 2008 issue of FourFourTwo, Sergio Krithinas went along to experience it first hand...

“We will eat them,” yells a Benfica fan standing outside a food van next to the Stadium of Light – and he’s not talking about the burgers.

It’s three hours before the big game in Lisbon and ‘them’ are Lagartos, ‘The Lizards’, the nickname given to Sporting fans due to their green-and-white striped kit.

Other jokes and comments fly through the air: one Benfica fan shouts out “Anything less than a 3-0 win will feel like a loss for us,” while another promises to shave the head of Sporting coach Paulo Bento, on account of his latest dodgy hairdo. On the whole, though, here in the Alto dos Moinhos area of the city, the mood is quiet and respectful. Fans seem more interested in their pre-match ritual, eating a pig-skin sandwich, the coirato, and sipping a small bottle of beer, known as a mini.

As the tension grows, the chants become more venomous. “Benfica is crap, Benfica is crap,” sing half of the group, while the other half proclaim, “The hooker, the hooker, the hooker is your mother...”

Benfica and Sporting have hated each other for the last 100 years, but theirs is a unique kind of hate, a Portuguese way of hating, typical of the country whose military-led pro-democratic coup d’etat in 1974 was nicknamed the Carnation Revolution because of its lack of violence.

In the hours before this, the first derby of the season, both sets of supporters share the areas around the stadium peacefully. The Benfica fans are in the vast majority and their strength in numbers gives them the confidence to start the chants. “SLB, SLB, SLB… Glorious SLB, Glorious SLB!” is their anthem.

Benfica's original Estadio da Luz home

A new one was built next door for Euro 2004

The Sporting fans walk by, seemingly indifferent, but make no mistake: getting one over on Lampioes, ‘The Lamps’ – a nickname given to Benfica fans because their home ground is the Stadium of Light – is all that occupies their minds.

This tranquil picture dramatically changes following the arrival of Sporting’s biggest ultra group, the 2,400-strong Juve Leo, who have walked the one mile from their own Jose Alvalade Stadium to get here. Many are wearing T-shirts bearing a pig’s face and the slogan: ‘Lampioes? No, thank you!'

As the tension grows, the chants become more venomous. “Benfica is crap, Benfica is crap,” sing half of the group, while the other half proclaim, “The hooker, the hooker, the hooker is your mother...”

The large police presence quickly becomes visible and the ultras are swiftly shepherded into the stadium. A small scuffle breaks out, and three fans are arrested for throwing stones at the police. As usual, though, there is very little violence: once again, the Portuguese fans prefer carnations to fists.

Make peace, not war

You don’t find much physical hostility between fans in this corner of south-western Europe, as the history of clashes between these two sides demonstrates. The hatred is intense, but only once has it spilled over into tragedy, when Benfica’s ultras, celebrating their first goal in the 1996 Portuguese Cup Final, hurled a fire-cracker into the stand where the Sporting fans were gathered.

It landed on Rui Mendes, a 36-year-old father of two, and gored his chest. He died instantly. Sporting fans shouted, “Killers, killers!” at the Benfica fans, but astonishingly the game continued. Benfica went on to win 3-1, but their celebrations were quickly replaced by mourning which, briefly, united the city and its two biggest teams. The man who hurled the missile, Hugo Inacio, was given a four-year jail sentence. 

One of Portugal’s most famous authors, Antonio Lobo Antunes, explains that Benfica’s history is more steeped in keeping peace than causing violence: “I served in the war with Angola in the 1960s and I saw some extraordinary things. When Benfica played, we switched on the radio, turned the speakers towards the woods, and we were never attacked. Even the MPLA [the Angolan party fighting for independence] supported Benfica.

I can understand that you would shoot a Porto fan, but how could you do it to a Benfica fan? Does it ever make any sense to shoot a Benfica fan?

- One of Portugal’s most famous authors, Antonio Lobo Antunes

"It made the war very strange: it didn't seem to make sense to want to fight people that supported the same club as us. It’s true, Benfica was our best protector in the war: [the ceasefire] never happened when Porto or Sporting played. I can understand that you would shoot a Porto fan, but how could you do it to a Benfica fan? Does it ever make any sense to shoot a Benfica fan?”

Like so many rivalries, the distinctions between Sport Lisboa e Benfica and Sporting Clube de Portugal has its genesis in class. Sport Lisboa was founded on February 28, 1904 by a group of students who added the name Benfica in 1908. The club was poor and always struggled to provide their athletes with the best conditions.

Sporting, founded on July 1, 1906, was immediately bankrolled by the grandfather of their founder, Jose de Alvalade, who happened to be a viscount. “Sporting is a more elitist club, and they are run in a very particular way,” says Joao Pinto, one of the best Portuguese players to have represented both teams. “Benfica are the biggest club in Portugal, they are more ‘the people’s club’ with a huge fanbase, and therefore their expectations are always more demanding.”

Benfica’s directors claim that they have the biggest number of card-carrying members in the world. Their entry in the Guinness Book of World Records cites over 170,000 registered members, many of them from the city’s lower classes, much to the amusement of their rivals. “When the Stadium of Light is full, there are 65,000 teeth in there: one for each of their fans” is the popular gag among their rivals.

The class difference was apparent before the first meeting between the two teams on December 1, 1907. Sporting are alleged to have signed (or stolen, if a Benfica fan is telling you the story) eight players from their rivals, after offering them better pitches to practice on and, the clincher, warm showers after the games.

Scarves: Flammable

That game was played in torrential rain, at Quinta Nova, Sport Lisboa’s ground. At half-time, Sporting emphasised the gulf between the teams by providing their players with fresh shirts to replace their dirty ones. They won 2-1 and Sporting’s sartorial influence was once again apparent on July 18, 1911 when their players refused to welcome Benfica to their stadium, saying their scruffy opponents were not fit to appear on their hallowed pitch. 

Despite losing those early encounters, history has more often smiled on Benfica: in 352 games, including friendlies, the Reds have won 151, drawn 66 and lost 135. They’re also ahead in the honours stakes, having won 31 league titles to Sporting’s 18 and 24 Portuguese Cups to Sporting’s 19. Benfica have also won the European Cup twice, finishing runners-up a further five times. Sporting have just the 1964 Cup Winners’ Cup to show for their European exploits.

Jose Aguas lifts the European Cup in 1961

And yet for this match, the first official derby of the season, Sporting are the favourites. It’s round four of the league and the visitors have won their first three matches of the season, and also beat Benfica 2-0 in an August friendly. It’s the first real test for Benfica’s new Spanish coach, Quique Sanchez Flores, after a disappointing start to the season: his side drew two of their first three league matches and lost a UEFA Cup tie to Napoli.

Benfica coach Quique Sanchez Flores

The pre-match press conferences have passed with a few niggles, with Sanchez Flores suggesting some irritation with his opposite number Paulo Bento. “I’m a humble guy and I don’t like to open out my chest and talk big,” he said in response to Bento’s simple observation that “Sporting haven’t lost on their last three trips to the Stadium of Light”. But the pressure is mounting: defeat will leave Benfica seven points behind their rivals after only four games.

NEXT: The Black Pearl and Benfica's dominance