Like so many other European capital cities, Lisbon is home to a number of major football clubs, with the two most famous of these being Sporting CP and SL Benfica. They form part of the ‘Big Three’ in Portuguese football (along with FC Porto) as the regular title contenders who have never been relegated from the Primeira Liga. However, this year Sporting have slipped to fourth while Porto and Benfica have been joined by Braga in the title race.
Benfica were the team in action when the girlfriend and I travelled to Lisbon. They sat third in the league going into their game in hand over CD Nacional knowing that a win would take them second, just a point behind Primeira Liga leaders Porto. Meanwhile, Nacional looked to cause an upset and get themselves out of relegation troubles.
We travelled to the biggest stadium in Portugal, the Estadio da Luz, to see what would happen at both ends of the league… on Saffron’s birthday, no less.
Estadio da Luz
It’s been a while since I’ve visited a stadium that’s really left me in awe but Benfica’s Estadio da Luz did just that.
I decided to get us tickets at the very back of the stadium – both for affordability purposes and the amazing views of the whole ground. It didn’t disappoint.
With a crowd of 55,000 in attendance, seeing the stands full of fans around us was breathtaking. At one period of the match, the two opposite ends of the ground containing flag-waving ultras began chanting ‘Benfica’ back and forth to each other. With no away fans in sight, the sound echoed around the stands and only emphasised how far Nacional were from their home on the island of Madeira.
Built in 2003, the Estadio da Luz is a pretty modern stadium that’s already hosted many showpiece matches like the finals of the 2004 European Championships and the 2014 Champions League. Just being in the ground for a match was special but we got a game that made the visit extraordinary.
The contest pitted the league’s best attackers against the worst defenders but even the most optimistic observers couldn’t have predicted the final scoreline. The hosts managed to hit double figures with no reply for their biggest league win since 1964 and set the record for the highest scoring match in the new Estadio da Luz. Even more embarrassing for the away team is the stark truth that it could have been an even heavier defeat.
Benfica were a class above their opponents. Their one-touch pass and move attacking play had Nacional in disarray and it was amazing that the score was only 3-0 at half-time. Alex Grimaldo scored in the first minute to set the tone and Haris Seferovic bragged a brace before the half-hour mark.
In the second half, Joao Felix – subject to much speculation about his future from some of Europe’s biggest clubs – got on the scoresheet with a header at the back post. I’d been looking forward to seeing Felix play after seeing the highlights from Benfica’s last league game where he produced some amazing passes to help destroy Boavista 5-1. He showed glimpses of his star potential in this game, providing clever flick-ons and demonstrating great awareness. But this match was less about one man. It was a truly great team performance, epitomized by the eight different scorers.
If there was a star figure, you’d perhaps say it was Pizzi. He won and scored the penalty which made it 5-0, provided three assists and was a menace on the left-hand side. However, defenders Ferro and Ruben Dias kept clean sheets and scored a goal each, Rafa Silva had a great game on the right-wing and also found the net, while Jonas came off the bench following a spell out injured to claim a brace himself.
The final score was said to have brought some of the Nacional players to tear but it brought a more pleasing memory for Saff, as the amount of goals scored matched the number of her birthday. February 10th could go down as a special day for a few more people in the future.
Locked out in the rain
Travelling to a part of the world that’s closer to Africa than the United Kingdom, I naively expected to be wearing short sleeves and basking in evening sunshine during the game. However, the scenes before kick-off were more biblical than I envisioned.
Supporters were protecting themselves from the elements in all sorts of places in the fan zones outside, including under some red railings that came out of the floor and mimicked the stadium roof. We took shelter by a bridge next to our gate entrance which was strangely being guarded by the police. It was still 45 minutes until kick-off so I assumed they’d start letting people in at a later time.
After 20 minutes of waiting in the rain, though, all the gates around us remained unopened. I had a look through one of the doors and realised they were the gates for the basketball arena next to the main stadium. We quickly headed through the main entrance and discovered we could have been in the dry concourse a lot sooner.
Being at the back of the stand meant we had the rain blowing in from the open sections at the top. I was colder than I thought I’d be but the amount of times I was off my seat celebrating goals to The White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army helped me forget about the conditions.
Since taking over as Benfica manager at the start of the year, Bruno Lage has won every league game in charge to propel his team to within a point of Porto at the Primeira Liga summit. It’s a remarkable turn of form for a side who were fourth and seven points behind the league leaders when previous coach, Rui Vitoria, left the club.
Being inside the Estadio da Luz for this record match was a privilege. You could really feel the team’s momentum and the fans’ newfound excitement in and around the ground.
Although Nacional were pretty poor, Benfica played outstanding football and it shouldn’t be played down how complete their performance was – the team not even giving up a consolation goal. If Benfica do go on to win the league now, this game will only increase in importance so I’ll be looking closely and backing the Eagles for the rest of the season.
Benfica 10 – 0 Nacional
Estadio da Luz
Best Of The Rest
Had we stayed in Lisbon an extra night, we could have also visited the Estadio Jose Alvalade and watched Sporting take on Villarreal in the Europa League. But on our way to see the ceramic creatures and numerous peacocks in the Jardim Bordallo Pinheiro, we checked out Sporting’s home across the street.
I really loved the design of their ground, which is the second largest in Portugal for capacity. It made me yearn to see a game there as it looked like it had a similarly impressive interior. But the mash of colours, abstract patterns and quirky architecture of the exterior were definitely worth scoping out despite not being able to see inside.
Whilst we were in the famous Lisbon district of Belem, another stadium we checked out was the Estadio do Restelo, home of CF Os Belenenses.
When we arrived, the gates were open and we had a wander round. We took some decent photos of the club shop and the memorial wall but I wanted to keep looking. Soon, we found ourselves walking up a flight of stairs with what looked like the groundsman. He didn’t seem to mind that we were nosing so we continued to the top. There, we were treated to a spectacular view above the stadium that included the Ponte 25 de Abril, the Cristo Rei and the River Tagus.
It wasn’t until after we’d looked around that we discovered the team who plays in the ground is an amateur side. Apparently, the club split into two teams in the summer with Primeira Liga side, Os Belenenses SAD, playing their home games in nearby Setubal and the amatuer side, CF Os Belenenses, staying at the Estadio do Restelo.
From what I’ve read, the amateur team gets more supporters attending their matches than the top division side. So, as strange as the situation is, at least the original team is still well-backed.
Away from football, there was so much to see and do in Lisbon. The transportation system was easy to use and very reasonably priced with single trips costing €1,50 and 24-hour tickets totalling €6,40. We managed to take in as many free landmarks as we could which included using our 24-hour travel ticket to see the Ponte 25 de Abril and Cristo Rei on the other side of the river – the bus ride across the bridge was stunning, incidentally.
When we did spend money on attractions, it was for the Modern Art Museum in Belem (€5) and the gardens at the Pena Palace in Sintra (€7,50). I would highly recommend the latter as we spent our entire day trip in Sintra hiking and meandering around the vast landscapes. The price also includes some spectacular views from the Pena Palace wall walk that allows you to see the Atlantic Ocean and miles of Sintra-Cascais National Park.
Even though we wanted to look around other Lisbon sights such as the National Tile Museum, the Doll Hosptial and the Carmo Convent ruins, we just couldn’t fit them all in. Plus, a lot of the time, we were just happy to take a stroll in the pleasant sunshine and admire the incredible, free views at almost every turn. No doubt, we’ll need to head back sometime soon and see what we missed.