Football club Benfica Lisbon is the most popular sports club in Portugal. Benfica are even one of the clubs with the most members worldwide. How did the club manage it? A story about fame, fascination and tricks.
The sky over Lisbon is already dark as Vitoria floats in the centre of the floodlights. With a smooth flap of its wings, the mascot of the Portuguese football club Benfica Lisbon does two laps of the stadium before flying back to the pitch. It’s a Sunday evening in January, just before 6pm. Floodlit match at the Estadio da Luz. Record champions Benfica Lisbon are hosting league rivals Pacos Ferreira. Before every home game, eagle Vitoria flies in the stadium. Legend says that Benfica only win if Vitoria flies two rounds.
“E pluribus unum” is Benfica’s official club motto, emblazoned on the logo under the golden eagle: “Out of many, one”. They are many at Benfica. As of 12 January 2022, according to the club, it has 256,000 members, 92 per cent of whom live in Portugal. This makes the club not only Portugal’s biggest sports club, but also the second biggest in the world after Bayern Munich.
Even before the game against Pacos Ferreira, you notice how popular the club is. Whether it’s a family with a child, young adults or pensioners, fans like Marco Oliveira gather around the stalls in front of the stadium. The 30-year-old is a season ticket holder, a member and has been a Benfica fan all his life: “It’s a passion that my family has passed on to me. I grew up in a small town 200 kilometres away from Lisbon and even in these small towns the majority is supporting Benfica,” says Oliveira.
“Benfica is without doubt the club with the largest fan base in Portugal. When Benfica lose you notice because the fans are everywhere. We even had a politician who postponed a Parliamentary session because of a Benfica match last year,” says Portuguese sports journalist Tiago Cortez. He has been reporting on Benfica Lisbon for Portugal’s biggest television station SIC for eight years. According to him, the whole country basically supports one of the three big clubs: Benfica Lisbon, Sporting Lisbon or FC Porto. “In contrast to Sporting, since their foundation in 1904, Benfica have always been associated with the lower class. That’s why Benfica have always had more fans because they are closer to the people,” says Cortez.
In the 1960s, the club climbed to the top internationally with club legend Eusebio. Benfica won twice in a row the European Champion Clubs’ Cup, now called the Champions League, two times in a row. “I think many people are fascinated by the club because of its performance and its past success,” says 21-year-old Benfica fan Waheed.
“Being the most successful team in Portugal, Benfica always grew and grew,” Cortez confirms. In 2006, Benfica got an entry in the Guinness Book of Records as the best-supported club in the world, with 160,398 members. The club still advertises this title on some of its merchandise. But Cortez is critical of the high membership figures: “I don’t trust these numbers completely,” he says. Because the truth is that Benfica has had a little help with the figures.
This has mainly to do with Luis Filipe Viera who was the club’s president from 2003 until July 2021 – before he was, amongst others, arrested on suspicion of serious fraud and money laundering. In 2003, Viera took over a club with a glorious past and a bleak present. The last championship title was nine years ago. Viera wanted to make Benfica the biggest club in the world. In June 2005, he launched a campaign with a membership of around 100,000. The goal: 300,000 members. To make membership attractive to fans, Benfica came up with a number of ideas. A starter package for 55 euros included the membership fee for four months, tickets for two league games and discounts at repsol petrol stations for instance. There were soon four thousand sales outlets throughout the country.
In fact, membership skyrocketed as a result, but far from the 300,000 initially targeted. In 2014, the club launched the most aggressive membership campaign in history. With the club already over 200,000 at the time, Vieira again spoke of the magic 300,000 mark. “Players don’t become champions without a good coach, the coach doesn’t become champions without the support of the directors – and the club is nothing without its members,” Vieira proclaimed.
The campaign sent out 4.5 million membership registration forms. “This aggressive marketing campaign made it very easy for people to sign up as members. They didn’t have to pay, they just had to put their name on the sheet and they became a member,” says Cortez. He continues: “”But if you don’t pay fees, eventually you have to be written off as a member and Benfica had to do that. In 2015, Benfica had to do a recount and from night to day they lost 100,000 members.” It is also suspected that people who had already died were still counted in the membership statistics. For Cortez, the matter is clear: “The numbers were disguised.”
Meanwhile, the final whistle sounds in the Estadio da Luz. The fans in the stadium applaud cautiously. Despite 45 minutes with an extra man due to a red card, the final score is only 2:0. Benfica win without any glamour – for some, probably also thanks to eagle Vitoria. Although the club remains only third in the league behind Porto and Sporting, the fans and members all over Portugal are happy about the three points. No matter how high the exact number of members really is in the end.