Benfica’s Root Problem is Cultural, Not Technical/Tactical

“…the only one to blame is me, I am the President”

-Luis Filipe Vieira

Lisbon, Portugal- Bruno Lage has stepped down as Manager of Benfica’s First Team, a post he’s held since January 3,2019. 2019 was in-fact a dream year for the now 44 year old former Benfica manager. His reign closed out with a lackluster 2-0 loss on Madeira Island Monday against the now 12th place C.S. Maritimo. In what now feels like an alternate universe (both on the pitch and just in general) Bruno Lage took control of the Eagles then in 2nd place and guided the Glorioso one match at a time, 3 points at a time past archrival Porto and across the finish line in first place as Champions of Portugal in the most fairy tale manner possible. In his first 20 League matches Lage dropped only 2 points in a home draw to Belenseses, SAD and erased a 7 point deficit in the table to the Dragons from the North. Add to that, when Portuguese football kicked off for the 2019/20 season Lage’s men picked up right where they left off the previous season (at least in terms of results). A 5-0 thumping of cross city rival Sporting in the annual SuperCup was followed by wins in the first two rounds of the new LigaNOS season. A round 3 shocking home defeat to the same Porto side Lage had outclassed in every way imaginable en route to the title just months earlier was the manager’s first career LigaNOS defeat. In that match there were suspect decisions made by the gaffer that were criticized by supporters and press alike, including yours truly. I remember criticizing the decision to start a young and green overwhelmingly left footed defender Nuno Tavares at right back. I like many others however, gave Lage the benefit of the doubt and placed the blame on the president for a poor offseason in the transfer market and not providing his manager with an acceptable squad (an opinion I stand behind to this day). With hindsight always being 20/20 it’s not hard to see right from the first defeat that the passionate romance between the manager and the supporters was already showing cracks in its foundation. Benfica would go on to win all the remaining matches in the first half of the season and go into the second half of the race with a 7 point lead of their own. What’s happened since does not have to mentioned here as anyone reading this knows the manager has stepped down and we now sit 2nd in the League 6 points from Porto with 5 matches to play. Much has been said about this team’s collapse in 2020 but I believe to understand the collapse you have to go back farther. For me the roots of the problem go back to 2018 and earlier, before most Benfiquistas even knew the name Bruno Lage.

Previous manager Rui Vitoria also had his romance with the fan base, although it never had the heat that Lage’s affair did. We all remember that Champions League 2nd Leg at home to Bayern Munich where Vitoria stood up for his players and was sent off by the referee and that scene of the supporters in the front rows of the Estadio da Luz near the tunnel embracing and mobbing Rui Vitoria in support of the manager that at that time had guided Benfica to similar come back in the table from down 7 points to over take the recently departed “traitor” Jorge Jesus’ Sporting side while going down in honor and with fighting spirit to a superior German giant in the Uefa Champions League. The break up between Benfiquistas and Jorge Jesus was the most bitter of any I’ve experienced. Not knowing then what I know now I also considered JJ a “traitor” and like with any long term break up (For 6 years JJ patrolled Benfica’s touchline in good times and bad.) harsh words were exchanged and JJ’s words offended Benfica’s players and supporters and inspired everyone in the club from the President to the kitman to youngest of Benfica supporters to rally together behind the hashtag #Juntos and the rest is history. 2 years later feelings had all died off for Rui Vitoria and not only from fans but players as well. The manager lost the lockeroom and the leaders of the team and at first the quality of play dropped and though the team maintained good results for some time they began relying on uglier more kick and rush styled victories, earning Vitoria the nickname “Rui Bombo”. Naturally as play deteriorated, results soon followed and it began to look as if none of the players wanted to play anymore. The nail in Rui Bombo’s coffin was a road defeat to Portimonense in which our players managed not one, but two own goals to ensure the manager’s sacking.

A week later back in our Estadio da Luz it was like flipping a switch and Benfica looked like they’d changed their mind about playing and the new manager inserted a teenager name Joao Felix and it was pure magic. That was the first win in an unbeaten League run that would span 22 rounds into the following season and we all thought (myself especially) we had our own version of the 2003-2007 Jose Mourinho. Only ours was better, our Bruno Lage was not arrogant, he didn’t consider himself “special”, the team played a mouth watering style of football featuring a number of our own academy players. The best part was our new manager had come through as an academy coach along with that generation of players and he was one of us. Fast-forward to the COVID19 bizzarro world and again Benfiquistas and their manager had lost feelings for each other. Many began day dreaming of the day that ex that betrayed us years ago would come back, save the day and we’d live happily ever after. Truth is it is now more than obvious Jorge Jesus did not betray and in fact I will argue our president betrayed him. Luis Filipe Vieira had his own romantic visions of all kinds of Benfica owned properties. Hotels, Media platforms, Health Clubs you name it and the president dreamed of a Benfica branded and licensed version of it. The team on the pitch became secondary to the spreadsheet and players stopped being looked at as part of a football team and instead became commodities to be sold to wealthier clubs abroad. I pinpoint the pushing out of Jorge Jesus as the critical moment where the toxic culture that now encapsulates Benfica was born. The idea that this club no longer needs to buy players that we can just always promote from within, those seeds were planted when JJ crossed the Segundo Circular to the Alvalade Stadium. The president stopped hiring managers based on qualifications but instead on obedience to his plans. In additioned to less experienced managers whom he could more easily manipulate LFV stopped bringing in strong personalities for the teamsheet as well. This is the reason today’s version of the team has very little leadership and this is how overpaid and unchecked egotistical players have buried the last 2 managers. With the exception of small hand full of players on this roster, these players don’t deserve to wear our crest. This club has pampered and spoiled these overall average players rotten. The entitlement of the majority of those players lead them to believe they can decide when, where and for what manager they will player. This is the problem with Benfica and it will not change just by simply changing the manager. Don’t be surprised to see this side decide they are going to play now and turn around and win these last 5 matches because these overpaid primadonnas think they can just turn it on and off as they wish. I now realize Lage wasn’t as great a manager as we thought , I believe because of the weak level of our League they players decided they’d work for him until they didn’t want to anymore. We won a title but perhaps paid for it with the soul of our club. Until the culture in the club is changed starting with the man at the very top, President Luis Filipe Vieira I expect more of the same. Maybe we’ll beat out Porto every other season and trade titles but the Champions League will continue to be viewed as a show place for young talent that is for sale and the manager whoever it will be will likely have to fill the prerequisite of being Vieira’s ultimate “Yes” man. If you’re interested in more of my thoughts regarding Bruno Lage, and the future of the club especially pertaining to the role of manager then check out the upcoming episode 64 of the podcast when it drops later this week. Below is a segment from my last episode.

Published by Mike Agostinho

Former Coach turned Podcaster/Blogger involving all things Sport Lisboa and Benfica from the perspective of the Mister and in English for Benfiquistas all over the English speaking world.

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