The distance separating SL Benfica’s Estadio da Luz from Sporting CP’s Estadio de Alvalade may only be just over three kilometres, but the two Lisbon outfits are anything but close. As is so often the case in football, the rivalry between the heavyweights is even more intense thanks to their geographical proximity, with As Águias and Os Leões tussling for the hearts and minds of large swathes of Portugal’s football fans for over 100 years.
What's more, as FIFA.com reveals, the impact of clashes between the teams in red and green – the colours of Portugal’s flag – reaches far beyond the country’s borders and into Europe, Africa and even the Americas, wherever there may be Portuguese people or those with Portuguese roots.
The encounter that has become known as “o clássico lisboeta”, “o derby eterno” or “o clássico da Segunda Circular” – the latter coming from the name of the avenue that separates the two stadiums – did not start out as Benfica versus Sporting. That is because the former had still to acquire their current identity back in 1907, with Sport Lisboa only becoming Sport Lisboa e Benfica one year later after a merger with athletics club Grupo Sport Benfica.
Setting the tone for a derby that has featured innumerable controversies and talking points over the years, the first meeting of the sides was played out in heavy rain, to such an extent that the Sporting players felt obliged to walk off the pitch with the scores still locked at 1-1. Eventually persuaded to restart proceedings by English referee Burtenshaw, Os Leões went on to win the game 2-1, with the winner coming via an own goal from none other than Sport Lisboa founder Cosme Damiao.
Such early successes helped pave the way for Sporting’s golden era of the 1940s and ‘50s, when the men in green-and-white stripes won no fewer than ten Portuguese titles, five Portuguese Cups and five editions of the now-defunct Lisbon championship. Shining in a host of these trophy wins were an attacking quintet so refined they became known as the “Os Cinco Violinos” (The Five Violins), with the exploits of Jesus Correia, Vasques, Albano, Peyroteo and Travassos dominating Portuguese football in the period prior to Eusebio’s arrival on the scene.
The man who went on to become the country’s first international footballing superstar had a key role to play in the Benfica-Sporting rivalry. Even before he touched down on Lusitanian soil, the two clubs had fought fiercely for the signature of the sensational Mozambique-born front-runner. And even though Eusebio was plying his trade for Sporting de Lourenco Marques, a feeder club of Os Leões, that did not prevent Benfica from winning the race and ‘The Black Pearl’ going on to become synonymous with Os Encarnados.
A two-time European Cup winner with As Águias in the 1960s, Eusebio cemented his status as a truly global talent at the 1966 FIFA World Cup™ in England. Finishing as the competition’s nine-goal top scorer, he played a major role in Portugal’s ending the tournament in third place, their all-time best performance at a world finals.
Tales of derbies past
The two clubs have faced each other 284 times in official competitions over the years, Benfica emerging winners in 124 of those games and Sporting in 102, with the remaining 58 encounters ending in draws. As Águias also hold the upper hand in terms of trophies won in all competitions, racking up 68 to Sporting’s 46.
Thankfully for Os Leões, there are more to city rivalries than mere statistics, and rarely does a self-respecting Sporting fan pass up the opportunity to recall the 7-1 thrashing their heroes dished out to Benfica on a rainy afternoon in December 1986, a disaster from which the men in red somehow recovered to take the league title.
Benfica fans have plenty of ammunition of their own, however. While mention of the 6-3 win at the Alvalade during the 1993/94 season is painful enough for Sportinguistas, few matches send as big a shiver down their spine as the penultimate game of the 1999/2000 league campaign.
The equation was simple enough for Sporting: victory at home to their old foes, who had endured a difficult year, would give them their first Portuguese title in 18 years. That scenario was motivation enough for the Benfica players, who spoiled the party by scoring the only goal of the game two minutes from time, condemning Os Leões to an anxious week. The long-awaited league crown was eventually theirs on the final day of the season, and though the celebrations in the green and white half of Lisbon were raucous enough, the title would have been savoured that little bit more had it been clinched against Benfica.
The rivalry today
Sporting came out on top again two seasons later, their last league title to date, while Benfica have won only two of their own since the turn of the millennium, the Lisbon duo being eclipsed by northern giants Porto, who have won seven championships in that time.
For all that, meetings between the two have become no less passionate, anything but in fact. Regardless of the stakes, Portugal’s eternal derby is always a special occasion. With such little distance between these two proud institutions, it could never be any other way.