With two come-along rotations at the elbow, the man in the red hat turns to assure me that walking along the onramp of a freeway is perfectly normal on game day. Cars zoom by us. A policeman nearby watches our journey and, to my surprise, does nothing. Red hat is guiding me to the BENFICA MEGASTORE to pick up will-call tickets to S.L. Benfica’s last home match of the season. As we arrive at the stadium I thank him for the direction, as unconventional as it seemed. He smiles, points toward the store, and says something in Portuguese I don’t understand.
I press through a huge crowd of people smoking cigarettes and pounding beers. Alcohol isn’t sold inside Estádio da Luz, so the parking lot pre-game celebration is critical. The beer of choice is Sagres, one of Benfica’s sponsors, served in overflowing plastic cups. Inside the halls of the shopping center a crowd of fans gathers around small TVs to watch volleyball and Chelsea FC. José Mourinho, Chelsea’s manager, got his start coaching Benfica in 2000 and the fans have kept an eye on his career from afar. I’m able to take a blurry picture of the gathering as I move toward the store to claim my tickets.
Benfica’s opponent – Vitória Setúbal FC – isn’t exactly sexy, but they’ve managed to work their way to a 7th place position in Portugal’s 16-team Liga. The result of today’s match is irrelevant, however, as the home team has already clinched. As is the case in so many European leagues, the champion is set well in advance of the final matches. The 2013/14 season is a milestone for Benfica, marking their 110th year as a club and 33rd league championship. They’ve steadily held the #1 position since week 15, exactly half the season. I sense that the atmosphere has suffered slightly due to the lack of pressure, but overall the fans are still exuberant.
Benfica rolls out a B+ squad in an attempt to rest players for the upcoming Europa League final (which they would go on to lose to Sevilla 4-2 on penalties). Although the game ends 1-1, the pageantry of winning the league isn’t spoiled. An eagle, iconic of the club’s logo, flies through the stadium to the arm of a handler below. People lay in a big “33” in the center circle. There’s confetti, singing, a tifo display, and fireworks. After the team disappears out of sight we file out of the stadium and onto the metro bound for Marquês de Pombal. The fans continue singing the entire way.
The 2015/16 season of Portugal’s Primeira Liga kicked off last weekend with Benfica registering a 4-0 win over Estoril to begin the campaign. Glorioso SLB.