The Athletic is attending some of the most ferocious derbies across Europe, charting the history of the continent’s most deep-rooted and volatile rivalries. The series began last season, covering 10 combustible fixtures from Athens to Anfield. We attended De Klassieker and the Derby della Capitale, the Eternal Derby and the Old Firm.
We resumed our journey with trips to Copenhagen and Salzburg earlier this season. Now to Portugal and the derby that divides Lisbon.
Parts of the stadium are on lockdown. There is still at least an hour before kick-off, but baton-wielding police with large riot shields are preventing Benfica fans — or anyone, for that matter — from walking down a pathway on the outskirts of the ground.
No explanation is given, but you’re not going to argue with a scary looking bloke wielding a baton.
Then the lockdown all makes sense. Thousands of Sporting Lisbon fans dressed in green and white are being shepherded into the stadium as one. And that means no one else is allowed to move.
Smoke bombs are being liberally lobbed around, firecrackers go off in the distance and, as the Sporting supporters are funnelled over a walkway into Estadio da Luz, Benfica fans who have gathered to ‘welcome’ them chorus a reminder that they are champions.
This is Benfica vs Sporting, the Derby de Lisboa.
The above may sound like a precursor to an evening of violence but, although this is a derby that has had its share of hatred, brutality and even death over the years, Benfica against Sporting is not an especially vicious rivalry when compared to some of the fiercest from across Europe.
It is a rivalry set in a charming, vibrant, cultural capital city in the south west of Europe, an enmity which has deep traditions forged from a class divide. Sporting was the club bankrolled by the Viscount of Alvalade and coaxed a load of Benfica players across the capital by promising better facilities. Benfica, on the other hand, prides itself as the people’s club — something encapsulated perfectly by fans helping to build their Estadio da Luz stadium in the 1950s.
“Those dividing lines have dissipated over the years, but there’s still a bit of that that exists today; Benfica are the people’s club and Sporting are elitist,” says journalist Tom Kundert, who specialises in Portuguese football.
“Benfica are the traditional working-class club. The stadium-building thing is probably slightly exaggerated, but you get the idea of the club having traditional, perhaps English-style origins.
“Sporting certainly has more of an aristocratic feel. The Sporting presidents have been politicians, businessmen, bankers — people who are from the elite of society. That’s a bit of a generalisation, but there’s also some truth behind it.”
If the dynamics of class have shifted slightly, then the dynamics of Portuguese football have also had a bearing on attitudes towards this historic derby, with Sporting’s decline making them less relevant as a force at the top of the Primeira Liga than they once were. Between 1941 and 1982, Sporting won 16 titles in 41 years. In the 41 years since, they have won three.
The rise of Porto has coincided with Sporting’s drop-off. The club from the north of the country have won 23 of their 30 league titles since 1985.
So, while the Derby de Lisboa is traditionally the biggest fixture in Portuguese football — the one game the country, not just Lisbon, would stop to watch — Porto’s emergence as a power to be reckoned with in recent decades has made Benfica’s contests with them the more significant fixture. In a league in which there are 15 distinctly beatable teams below the ‘Big Three’, a Benfica vs Porto match usually has a massive influence on the destiny of the title. So the Benfica-Porto rivalry is now arguably bigger.
Perhaps consider that the equivalent of the Liverpool vs Manchester United rivalry in Portugal, whereas a Benfica vs Sporting clash might be more akin to a Merseyside derby… massive in the 1980s, but now rather one-sided. In the 45 Derby de Lisboas since the 2006-07 season, Benfica have won 22 games to Sporting’s 10.
“Older Benfica fans would probably class Sporting as the bigger rival where younger fans might say Porto,” Kundert says.
“With Benfica and Porto, there’s a visceral hate. They just can’t stand each other and they’ve been deciding who’s going to win the title in recent decades, so that’s the Clasico. Benfica vs Sporting is the original derby. It’s a huge game, of course, and when Sporting have a good team and a decent shot at the title it becomes even bigger.”
And that’s why Sunday night is so hotly anticipated. This is a throwback.
After 10 league games of the season, Sporting top the Primeira Liga after an unbeaten start. They have dropped only two points along the way. Ruben Amorim, the coach who ended Sporting’s near two-decade wait for a league championship in 2021, has his sights set on doing it again. A famous win at the Estadio da Luz would put Sporting six points clear and, with head-to-head records separating teams in Portugal rather than goal difference, that would represent a sizeable lead.
After the rush of the Sporting fans being ushered into the ground well in advance of kick-off, the atmosphere around the stadium is relatively calm. There are small pockets of trouble on the dual carriageways surrounding the stadium, mostly involving fireworks and flares, while the stench of cannabis (which is decriminalised in Portugal) is so incredibly pungent that there’s no surprise to see an array of fast food vendors nearby to satisfy any sudden bouts of hunger.
Otherwise, it is fairly sedate.
They eat their food. They queue for merchandise. They pose for pictures by the Eusebio statue. It’s all quite sanitised Premier League — a feeling compounded by songs by Metallica and Black Eyed Peas blaring out from inside the stadium.
There are some familiar names on the team sheets, too. Like the 35-year-old World Cup winner Angel Di Maria, once of Real Madrid, Manchester United, Paris Saint-Germain and Juventus but now back at the club where he launched his European career. There are defenders of Premier League past — Nicolas Otamendi (Manchester City) and Sebastian Coates (Liverpool) — and possibly future: Benfica’s Antonio Silva and Sporting’s Goncalo Inacio are both the right side of 23 and have the attributes to progress to the top of European football.
Marcus Edwards and Pedro Goncalves were discarded by Tottenham Hotspur and Wolverhampton Wanderers respectively, but they now help spearhead an exciting Sporting attack alongside former Coventry City striker Viktor Gyokeres.
Links between the two Lisbon clubs are not uncommon and the main one tonight is Joao Mario, the Benfica midfielder who started his career with Sporting and is booed by those in the away end throughout.
Yet it was actually a manager crossing the divide who caused the most friction between these two great rivals. Jorge Jesus, he of three titles and no defeats in 51 consecutive home league games as Benfica manager, leapt across Lisbon in 2015.
“That was an incredible moment in Portuguese football,” Kundert says. “Absolutely sensational. It brought to an end his fantastically successful period at Benfica — he’d rejuvenated them after they’d won one title in 15 years and been a complete mess.
“When he came over to Sporting, it was just a massive surprise. No one could believe it. It got really ugly in terms of legal ramifications (Benfica took legal action against Jesus, saying he started work at Sporting while still under contract with them).”
In October 2015, Sporting won 3-0 at Benfica when Jesus took his new team to his old one, overseeing Sporting’s biggest victory at the Estadio da Luz since 1947-48. But the magic did not last.
“He started brilliantly at Sporting then, in the Lisbon derby at Sporting later in that season (in the March), Benfica won 1-0, went top and stayed there,” adds Kundert. “The 2015-16 season was incredible. Sporting under Jesus were definitely the best team in Portugal that season, but it quite often happens that, when Benfica are struggling, one player emerges to make the difference.
“That season it was Renato Sanches who helped them on an incredible run of 25 wins in 26 matches.”
Benfica won the title by two points. In Portugal, when these teams are at the peak of their powers, this fixture is about more than a rivalry.
It can define titles.
It was around this time that hatred between the fans was still quite fierce, hostility that stemmed from a tragic incident in 1996 when, during the Portuguese Cup final, a firecracker was thrown by Benfica’s ultras into the stand where Sporting’s fans were gathered. It hit supporter Rui Mendes, aged 36, who died instantly.
The city was united in its mourning but, this being football, the tragedy was occasionally disrespected in horrific ways.
“You would still hear Benfica fans making the noise of a firework into the sky, alluding to that,” Kundert says. “Sporting’s response to being mocked was that, when Eusebio died (in 2014), they made a chant which went something along the lines of following Eusebio into hell.
“The tension between the fans really ramped up for a while, not helped by Sporting’s Bruno de Carvalho, who went against the grain of Sporting presidents in that he was an ultra, coming out with a lot of negative, antagonistic rhetoric towards Benfica.”
There was also tragedy in 2017 when Marco Ficini, an Italian who supported Fiorentina and had gone to Lisbon with a group of friends to watch Sporting, died after being hit by a car when running from the violence that had erupted between the two sets of fans.
This being the Estadio da Luz (the Stadium of Light), the pre-match lights show is among the best you could ever see.
We are not talking about a few flashing floodlights while some R’n’B plucked from the 2000s blares out at ear-bleeding volume. This is total darkness to stunning neon red, playing Benfica anthems like Ser Benfiquista by Luis Picarra (lyrics including “being a Benfica fan means having an immense flame in your soul”) and then some incredibly catchy Europop which has the majority repeatedly shouting “Benfica” at the top of their voices — everyone on their feet, scarves in the air. Stirring stuff.
And amid it all, the teams emerge before the lights come up.
There is nothing forced about the pre-match atmosphere. It adds to the energy and the fans are fully engaged. Not that the Sporting fans, shoved into the top tier behind one of the goals, enjoy a second of it.
The noise never really ceases thereafter in what is one of the loudest atmospheres — certainly in terms of its sheer incessancy — one could wish to experience. Benfica, despite their very mixed early season form which has included a disastrous Champions League campaign comprised to date of four successive defeats, should be three or four goals ahead by the half-hour mark, but Rafa Silva misses a sitter from eight yards out and pings one off the bar from range, while Joao Mario dinks one across the goal line.
As if to showcase the Merseyside derby feel of the Derby de Lisboa, after Di Maria fires off target the big screen focuses on a mother and her son reacting to the chance. The mother is wearing a Sporting shirt. Her son is clad in the colours of Benfica.
Sporting mostly threaten via set pieces but, on the stroke of half-time, they take a stunning lead when Edwards slips in Gyokeres who drives a beast of a shot past Ukrainian goalkeeper Anatolii Trubin. It is Gyokeres’ ninth goal in 13 appearances since his £20million ($25m) move from Coventry in the summer. He runs to the corner telling the Benfica fans how great he is.
Stuff is thrown at him. It is the last action of the half.
You may expect a break in the noise levels at the interval but, instead, Sporting’s fans carry on their celebrations for the next 15 minutes, jumping and singing throughout half-time. No Bovril required when you’ve just taken the lead at the home of your bitter rivals.
It is all going so well for Sporting who are heading six points clear… Then, six minutes into the second half, Inacio goes and flies into a challenge on a yellow card. Off he goes. He trudges off inconsolable, knowing he may have cost his team dearly.
At first Sporting’s man disadvantage actually seems to help them; they discard any notion of attacking and do a great job in restricting Benfica’s chances, sitting deep and repelling everything red that comes their way. Di Maria tries his best to conjure some magic and causes the odd pang of panic but, as the game heads into stoppage time, it looks like Sporting will be taking a significant step forward in the title race.
And then… bedlam.
There are 94 minutes on the clock when, at a set piece and with Benfica’s goalkeeper flung upfield in desperation, Sporting forget to mark little midfielder Joao Neves, who controls and volleys home to spark mayhem in the stands.
Sporting players sink to their knees in frustration, but their agony is not yet complete. Into the 97th minute and the Benfica substitute Casper Tengstedt bundles the ball in from close range. The din in the stands reaches new levels. Substitutes and coaching staff spill onto the pitch. Fans breach the line of stewards… but the offside flag is up.
Cue an agonising VAR check but, in the 99th minute, the goal is given. Everyone loses their minds.
There are scuffles on the pitch at full time. The home fans can’t believe what they have witnessed. The away fans must sit and endure it as they will not be allowed out of the stadium for a good while yet.
“It’s one of the most painful defeats of my career,” Sporting coach Amorim laments. “Tomorrow it’s going to hurt even more, because it’s important. It’s not decisive, but we were three minutes away from having a six-point lead.”
Benfica were three minutes from being six points behind Sporting. Instead, they are top of the table. Their manager Roger Schmidt sums up the emotions of the other half of the city: “It is impossible to win a derby in a more beautiful way than this.”
A derby with longstanding history, with a class divide, with hatred on both sides and, this season, perhaps one with a real bearing on the title race, too.
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(Photos in top design: Getty Images; design: Sam Richardson)