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

Comments (7)
Comment by goiaba 2010-05-16 21:11:53

Skipping the paragraphs about Benfica and Braga, my comment goes only towards the "facts" exposed in this article about the club that I support and of which I am a proud member, Sporting Clube de Portugal.

It is true that we had a terrible season and that much needs to be changed inside the club but it is absolutely false that the 16,000 that watched that home game against Naval went there only to jeer the team. About the sentence "there are those that are suggesting the Lions may be going the way of Belenenses", perhaps you should know that we've been hearing that since the early 1980's but unfortunately for the Benfica controlled sports press of our country, we are still the second most popular club in Portugal and are still capable of bringing in 16,000 spectators for a meaningless home match at the end of one of our worst ever seasons.

Maybe a little more work in finding your sources wouldn't be a bad idea Mr Town.

Comment by erwin 2010-05-16 23:55:14

I'm sorry if I touched a nerve, goiaba, but the "facts" are that, yes, your club had an awful season, and the boos and whistling started in the pre-season at Alvalade and never stopped. My "sources" are my ears.

If you are "the second most popular club in Portugal", then you must be speaking of people who say they are "fans", if asked at parties, to break the ice, or in a bar to get the banter going. They don't go to games (2,500 at the recent match at União de Leiria, in one of the alleged Sporting heartlands) and 16,000 in a 50,000 stadium, even at the end of the season, is hardly a demonstration of mass support.

My comparing Sporting with Belenenses came from reading just that comparison in various columns. They may well have been "Benfica-controlled" columns, but then the 'Sporting-controlled' columns would hardly admit to such a likelihood, would they?

Phil Town

Comment by Paulao 2010-05-17 06:46:45

I'm going to have to second this checking of your sources...

Jeering in the pre-season? You're off base with that assertion. Going into the new season this was a team that should've been up there fighting for the title. They didn't let go of any of the perennial stars and brought in Matias Fernandez. Most of the squad was the same that finished second the year previous, which is a complete anomaly for Sporting these days.

If your sources are your ears perhaps you should also use your eyes because the Juve Leo were behind the team 100% in pre-season and the beginning of the season, and still continue to be 100% behind them.

Sporting going the way of Belenenses? That's the most ridiculous thing I've read. But I don't know if it's as ridiculous as you admitting that you have no creativity and stole the comparison from somewhere else. Belenenses is a situation of fans and monetary situation. Sporting have one of the world's best academies, great sponsor pay-out (Alcochete sponsored by PUMA), and a good fan support. They are not going 'the way of Belenenses.' Although to say that, kind of hints that Belenenses was once a force to be reckoned with. Which they weren't aside from the season they won the title back in what? The 50s?

And did you REALLY just try and attack Sporting's fanship based on attendance at an away game?

Next you're going to turn around and tell me how Benfica has 6 million fans, of which only maybe 100-300K would be able to name you more than 2 names on their starting lineup.

Comment by erwin 2010-05-17 09:38:35

Juve Leo are - what? - one or two thousand fanatics who, yes, follow and get behind the team ... helped by subsidies from the club re tickets, transport, equipment. Ninety-five per cent of Sporting fans are not members of 'claques' and have been disgruntled all season. That 'away' game was at Leiria, which, as you know Paulão, is basically a city of Sporting fans ... you would have expected a few more there if they weren't all (perhaps justificably) fed up by the end.

"But I don't know if it's as ridiculous as you admitting that you have no creativity and stole the comparison from somewhere else."

That would be a good point if I hadn't prefaced my comment thus:

"There are those that are suggesting" (...the Lions may be going the way of Belenenses).

There are indeed those who suggest that. I'm not allowed to reflect that opinion? Hmmm.

Oh, and it was 1946.

Comment by teedoubleyou 2010-05-18 13:03:40

I have to say that the comments from the Sporting fans just smack of sour grapes -- I know many lifelong Sporting fans who just refused to go to games this season as it was such a catastrophe in every department. This was culminated by the fact that Moutinho their illustrious captain (and a player once linked to Man Utd) wasn't even called up for the World Cup.

But what this article is really about is Benfica and their frankly stunning success. Obviously there has been substantial investment and Benfica are banking on being able to continue this success. Bearing in mind they're very likely to lose at least 1 of Cardozo, Di Maria, David Luiz and maybe Coentrao and it'll be a lot tougher for Jesus to challenge in the CL next season as well as hold off a stronger Porto.

But it hasn't only been the stars who performed, Carlos Martins for example was fantastic, and Coentrao (one for the future) shone playing out of position at left back.

In Porto's defence there is also the matter of having sold their 2 most influential players in Lucho and Lisandro. As good as Hulk is, he no longer has the support of strike partner of that quality (Falcao is alright, but not a world beater) or the passes from midfield.

Next season will be very different. It's tough to see Braga playing as well, and Benfica are now a known quantity. I look forward to it.

Comment by goiaba 2010-05-18 21:01:13

No Sporting fan can be happy after what was, undoubtedly, our worst ever season in terms of percentage of points (not) won. Having said that this still is a biased article made by someone that apparently likes to believe in what our wonderful sports press pukes out every day.

In what regards teedoubleyou's comments about Moutinho's absence of Portugal's World Cup roster he should have avoided mentioning that competition. Our captain may have missed the a World Cup call after a poor season but even so we've managed to get 4 players in the final 23 whereas the super-mega steam rolling best Benfica of the last 30 years got an incredible amount of 1 player called.

Comment by erwin 2010-05-18 23:50:32

So Maxi, Luisão, Ramires, di Maria and Cardozo won't be going now?

It might be a good idea to take the blinkers off, goiaba. Where was the bias exactly? Saying that Benfica had a terrific season? Even fervent anti-benfiquista Miguel Sousa Tavares admitted as much. Saying that Sporting had a terrible season? You, and every single sportinguista I work with, and every sportinguista columnist in the Portuguese press, admitted as much.

I am as sceptical as the next man about what the press tells me. But when it tells me obvious facts like the two above, then please don't crucify me for agreeing.

Phil Town

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