The Soaring Eagles of Portugal: SL Benfica
A European superpower with an unquenching thirst for success and development.
We touch down in Lisbon on a nippy January evening. After travelling for the best part of 15 hours, we have all of 5 minutes to get ourselves into formal clothing. Benfica is playing Leixones and we have an invite from the Benfica management for the quarter finals of the Taca de Portugal. While Benfica are soaring at the top of the Portuguese League under the guidance of Rui Vitoria, Leixones are fighting the tough fight in the lower reaches of the second division; a mismatch, to be fair. And with Rui Vitoria putting out a team that may as well be his best XI, the result of this game is a foregone conclusion. A 10-minute drive leads us onto the Avenida Lusíada and the imposing Estadio Da Luz comes into view. The venue of the Euro 2004 final is a beautifully constructed stadium, a worthy home for a fine footballing institution such as Benfica. Just as we take the elevator to go up to the Presidential box, our eyes gaze upon a familiar figure. He is wrapped up in warm clothes and is sporting a hat to protect from the cold, but we are instantly aware that Nelo Vingada, the head coach of North East United from the previous season, is also in attendance. A true Benfica supporter and a Lisbon resident, Vingada has much history with the club in a coaching capacity.
As we make our way to our seats, a slender figure strides into the box. Hair slicked back and sporting a red scarf, Manuel Rui Costa mingles with the rest of the dignitaries present. It’s evident that this is a club where former players, not least of all legends, are always welcomed back with open arms. While the match hasn’t sold out, the stadium has a vibrant atmosphere. The Ultras are making their presence felt and the few hundred Leixones fans who have made the journey are in high spirits as well. The game turns out to be a goal-fest as Benfica puts a total of six goals past their opponents, with Kostas Mitroglou helping himself to a hat-trick. The familiarity players have with one another is clearly apparent within the first few ball passes. The ball zips about from one side of the pitch to another without an ounce of uncertainty on display among the players,and with some serious talent on the pitch, they run riot. Benfica 6 – 2 Leixones.
The following morning we drive to Seixal, which is located within a 10-minute drive from the “25th of April“ bridge, one of the more easily identifiable landmarks of Lisbon. We drive along the Tagus river, to arrive at ‘Caixa Futebol Campus’, the Benfica academy and training base. We have an appointment with Goncalo Nunes, the head of international youth development, and Nuno Gomes, the former Benfica and Portuguese International who leads youth development at the club. Nuno continues to sport his trademark hair from playing days and looks fit as a fiddle, the only visible signs of aging being a few greying strands. Within the first few minutes of our interaction, it is clear that they are both wonderfully passionate about the development of the sport among youth and their overall well-being. We are given a quick video briefing as a primer on Benfica and then off we go to tour the facilities. Nuno forewarns us that he must excuse himself halfway through it to attend to two players who are going to be in action soon in a scheduled friendly, and that he needs to take a call on for the youth teams.
The club is sprawled over an area of 20 picturesque hectares and has 9 full-sized pitches within the academy. This facility hosts 250 players who train there on a daily basis and 27 coaches looking after 15 different teams across all popular age groups. A lot of thought has been put into designing the space, as the training pitches for the first team are tucked away into the furthest corner to allow them the privacy they need while they train. Yesterday, the team put forth a satisfying performance but it isn’t time to rest yet. They are already back, training, and we get to spot the imposing frames of Luisao and Jonas. With a seating capacity of around 2,500 people, the ground that hosts the Benfica ‘B’ and youth team matches is tucked away in the opposite corner. Three other pitches are also within the vicinity of the main ground. This is an area that is generally open to the public and is also where most of the competitive action takes place. Situated smack in the midst of the facility is the residential space.
We walk over to a facility situated right next to the first team training pitch. It’s an indoor complex,no bigger in size than a regular futsal court. Within it is housed the state of the art technology that Benfica has developed along with a local IT company for its players. Christened the ‘Benfica Lab’, this tech allows players to simulate various game situations in order to better hone their technique and strategy. There are four cannons fitted at every corner of the square which can shoot at the speed of 20 to 140 kilometer per hour. There are nets in place connecting the cannons to each other. The player generally stands in the middle or on the side depending on the type of exercise engaged. Various programs have been loaded onto the system and can be altered to suit the needs of a player based on his individual skill areas with scope for improvement. A defender won’t have the same program as a midfielder. A goalkeeper will have his own set of challenges. It’s a system designed to challenge a player minus the pressure of his peers watching him. It’s a wonderful innovation and the gentleman responsible for this tell us that only Borussia Dortmund, in all of Europe, have technology that resembles this. Data is captured instantly and displayed on the wall for you. This same data is also then recorded and sent to the analysis team who pour over it at their convenience and this is only the first prototype. The next phase of this model which will allow them to replicate a real life scenario with further accuracy is already in the offing, further evidence that the club wants to continue to improve and push the standards to another level.
After giving the program a go, we head over to the residential academy. Goncalo explains that the residences are divided into three floors. Top floor belongs to the first team, the middle to the professionals in the B Team, and the lower floor to the youngest talent at the club, in an effort to have them understand natural progression and motivate them. The accommodations are not lavish, but functional. There are between 2-3 players per room depending on the age group who have the banks of River Tagus for a view. We then move over to the gyms and rehabilitation area which overlook the B-Team’s pitch and the first team training pitch on either side through glass walls. Goncalo explains again that this is by design. Watching players putting in the hard yards is a great source of motivation for other players.
We are then taken around the rest of the facility and given a comprehensive tour of all the elements including 24 changing rooms, two auditoriums, and three gyms. All the necessary support functions and departments also have their own dedicated spaces. The dining area is created to instill a sense of oneness, with all teams dining together. The first team eats where the rest of the boys in the set up do, too. The dressing rooms for all the reserve teams are of a quality that we see back here in ISL, with designated spaces for each task that need to carry out.
As we step back into our vehicle to make our way to the stadium, we can’t help but marvel at the level of professionalism exuded by everyone and general air of efficiency that promotes. The facility, since its inauguration in 2006, has been a conveyer belt of talent and has produced the likes of Renato Sanches, Goncalo Guedes, Andre Gomes, Victor Lindelof, Bernando Silva and so on. Going by Goncalo’s words, the next set of talent is ripe for picking as well, ready to add to that already impressive list.
A key function of the club is its scouting system. The scouting and analysis department produced over 10,000 reports on players last year. It was owing to these scouting reports that Nelson Semedo was picked up from the amateur leagues and turned into a first team player. Goncalo explains that while they pick up raw talent, the club plays a crucial role in re-shaping them into having a greater chance of breaking through. Case in point: Semedo started out as a right winger. Now he’s a marauding full-back drawing the attention of one Jose Mourinho.
Our next stop is a luncheon with Domingos Oliveira, Benfica’s CEO, and Miguel Bento, Head of Marketing at the Estadio Da Luz. Before we sit down, we are taken for a tour of the stadium to provide insight into all the facilities which also doubles up as an opportunity for us to see the club’s mascot, an American bald eagle named Vitoria, in action. Domingos and Miguel explain where Benfica stands in the current situation and talk about their first forays into the newer markets, particularly China. The club negotiated a €400m TV rights deal last year and are mindful of the fact that they now have to look beyond the Iberian Peninsula to continue developing the club. Keeping in fashion with their proactive approach, they have already identified their next markets and will soon roll out a strategy to make their presence felt. The conversation then meanders to our plans and vision for FC Goa, and they appear
genuinely interested in what we have planned. After exchanging jerseys, we make our way back with the exciting potential of a possible alliance in the future.