14 May ~ Last season Benfica looked disorganised, demoralised and unfit when finishing third in the Portuguese league under Spanish coach Quique Flores. This time, with only three major close-season signings (Javier Saviola and Javi García from Real Madrid and Ramires from Cruzeiro), they stormed to their first title since 1995, losing just two games and scoring 78 goals. Club president Luís Filipe Vieira, who has suddenly found money to inject, notably from a players' fund, helped the upsurge in fortunes. But the key to the triumph has been unanimously identified as coach Jorge Jesus, a 55-year-old who spent 20 years at lower-league and middling top-flight clubs before swapping Braga for the new champions.
As the results kept coming, belief gushed through the club, bringing over a million fans to the Estádio da Luz during the season. On the last Sunday, when the title was clinched at home to Rio Ave, conservative estimates put the benfiquista revellers thronging Lisbon city centre at 100,000 – which compared favourably with the turnout for the Pope's visit to the capital on the following Tuesday. Vieira has set his sights on 300,000 sócios (fee-paying associate members). The term "sleeping giant" might have been coined with Benfica in mind.
Benfica's detractors, and there are a good few of those, are holding up two off-field incidents (and their aftermath) in an attempt to reduce the worth of the title. FC Porto's Hulk and Cristian Sapunaru were suspended for four and six months, respectively, for assaulting stewards in the tunnel after the Benfica v Porto league game in December. On appeal, the suspension was altered to three and four games, but, by the time the decision came through, Sapunaru had been loaned to Rapid Bucharest and Hulk had missed 17 games. In a similar incident, Sporting Braga's key midfielder and captain Vandinho received a three-month suspension for attempting to assault a Benfica official at half-time in the Braga v Benfica clash earlier in the season. We'll never know if and how things might have been different had those players not been suspended, but anti-benfiquistas have a cache of arguments to dip into for many a year.
Of Braga and Porto, the former could be said to have triumphed in their own right. Finishing second, just five points behind Benfica but taking the championship to the wire, was the best position in the club's history, on an annual budget of €8 million (£6.8m), compared to Benfica's €30m. So Braga qualify for next season's Champions League for the first time, nudging out perennial qualifiers FC Porto.
Porto, who finished third, were big losers. Missing out on the Champions League millions will put a big dent in the club's finances, when they will need to invest to get their ship back on course. They failed to win their fifth title on the trot, but to make matters worse, they lost it to bitter enemies Benfica. And there's no reason why the new champions can't carry their irrepressible form over to next season.
But if Porto had it bad, then the third grande, Sporting, had it much, much worse. At the end of an awful season, marked by disorganisation at administrative level, the chewing-up of two coaches and consistent failure on the pitch, the last home game saw them lose 0-1 at home to mid-table Naval in front of a meagre 16,000, who had apparently gone to the Alvalade just to boo, and not for the first time. Sporting finished a whopping (and record) 28 points behind neighbours Benfica. There are those that are suggesting the Lions may be going the way of Belenenses – after many seasons of mediocrity and playing chicken with the drop, the once-great Lisbon club are effectively bankrupt and have now been relegated after finishing second from bottom. Phil Town