Benfica have qualified for the UEFA Champions League round of sixteen for the first time in a decade. This achievement speaks volumes about the gradual renaissance that has been taking place at the Lisbon giants, who are the reigning Portuguese champions and ahead in the top flight again this season.
In the eight years between 1996 and 2004, the most popular of Portugal's clubs won absolutely nothing. In the grip of a financial and sporting crisis, Benfica were outdone by FC Porto, their eternal local rivals Sporting Lisbon, and even little Boavista. Rock bottom for the club came with the imprisonment of their former chairman Joao Vale e Azevedo.
In 2000, the rebuilding process started slowly with the election to the chairmanship of Manuel Vilarinho, who laid the foundations for fresh success with the new la Luz stadium, a stunning 65,000-seater jewel. When Luis Filipe Vieira succeeded him in 2002 with a landslide 90% of the votes, he set about building a side capable of rivalling José Mourinho's FC Porto. With the Blue-and-Whites basking at the time in the glory of a spectacular Championship-Cup-UEFA Cup treble, he faced an extremely tall order.
The Spaniard José Antonio Camacho was drafted in to coach this new group, enjoying a notable success when Benfica succeeded in beating Porto in the 2004 Portuguese Cup Final to deprive them of an even more glorious Championship-Cup-UEFA Champions League hat-trick.
The ambitious Vieira then recruited the experienced Italian coach Giovanni Trapattoni, instructing him to "make our team like a big family, whose main quality should be humility".
Relying on a solid defensive base (Luisao, Ricardo Rocha), with the talent of Simao Sabrosa and the experience of Armando Petit in the middle, plus the enthusiasm of Fabrizio Miccoli and efficiency of a rejuvenated Nuno Gomez in attack, the Eagles lifted the title. In the streets of Lisbon, the ecstatic scenes underlined just how hungry the Lisbon supporters had been for silverware.
Benfica back with Europe's greatsThis season, after Trapattoni's departure for Germany (Stuttgart), it was the turn of the Dutchman Ronald Koeman to take up the torch and cement the club's position at the top of the table. Having inherited a closely knit squad with only one departure, Koeman has made an instant impression by winning the Portuguese Super Cup and steering Benfica to the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League for the first time in eleven years, knocking out Manchester United in the process.
For Benfica's fans, this victory had the sweet flavour of revenge, as the English club were the last team to beat them in the final of Europe's premier club competition back in 1968. That defeat had ended the most glorious period in the history of the club in which they had reached five European Cup finals between 1961 and 1968, winning two of them (against Barcelona and Real Madrid) as the great Eusebio ran riot in penalty areas throughout Europe.
Back then, Benfica could boast over five million supporters around the world, from Portugal to the former African colonies, as well as among the sizeable Portuguese expatriate communities in France and the United States.
In the UEFA Champions League round of sixteen, Benfica will play reigning European champions Liverpool on 21 February and 8 March. This meeting of two great historic clubs promises to be quite an encounter …
Benfica's list of honours31 Portuguese championships:
1936, 1937, 1938, 1942, 1943, 1945, 1950, 1955, 1957, 1960, 1961, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1976, 1977, 1981, 1983, 1984, 1987, 1989, 1991, 1994, 2005
26 Portuguese Cups:
1930, 1931, 1935, 1940, 1943, 1944, 1949, 1951, 1952, 1953, 1955, 1957, 1959, 1962, 1964, 1969, 1970, 1972, 1980, 1981, 1983, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1993, 1996, 2004
4 Portuguese Super Cups:
1980, 1985, 1989, 2005
2 European Cups (former Champions League):
5 European Cup finals:
1963, 1965, 1968, 1988, 1990
1 Latin Cup: