In Portugal “Futebol” belongs to the chosen few.
This season, once again, the title will be won by Benfica or Porto, a duopoly sometimes challenged by Sporting. One-hundred years ago, however, hierarchies weren’t so well-defined. On a bench in the Lisbon’s Belém neighbourhood, in 1919, Clube de Futebol Os Belenenses were founded. In the western side of Lisbon a story of hope and optimism began, resulting in an unbeatable record: they would always remain the first Portuguese club to play a European match, and furthermore they would be invited by Real Madrid for the official opening ceremony of the new Estadio de Chamartín, in fact today’s Estadio Santiago Bernabéu.
Today in Belém the flashes of photographs by random tourists have taken over the place of the past adventure tales. That water section between the Tagus river and the Atlantic Ocean was the door from Europe to America: the monumental Padrão dos Descobrimentos reminds us that, standing like a ship ready to sail on the road to the New World.
The fascinating tales and ambitions of this neighbourhood had to be reflected in its football passion. Os Belenenses, literally “the football team of us Belém citizens“, always tried to embody the deep western Lisbon pride.
Starting from their crest, the “Cruz of Cristo”, a clear tribute to the holy town of Bethlehem whose name gave origin to the district’s current denomination.
That’s the same emblem we find in Malta, where the Templar Order left many traces of their passage; it’s a crest which entered the popular culture thanks to the videogame Assassin’s Creed, where the Canadian franchise’s developers were inspired by the Portuguese capital too, as they showed it in a fast sequence regarding the 1755 earthquake that tore the town apart. Today the Cruz de Cristo is still there, on the renowned Belém Tower and Jardim da Praça do Império, a few steps away from Vasco da Gama’s tomb.
This narrative led local football pioneers’ fantasies to think way too big, sparking their unrealistic expectations. Amongst other things, in the neighbourhood we currently find the President of the Portuguese Republic. That’s maybe also the reason why an unproportioned multi-sports complex was created right behind the historic monastery dos Jerónimos, just a hundred meters higher. The limited local resources weren’t clearly considered.
It feels like Belenenses, since the first years of the 20th century, have been wearing a dress too big for themselves.
The Olimpic Park of the club shows more than any other place the marks of time. The club swimming pools are in a distressing state of abandon. A few meters away from that, children chase a ball in a setting that leaves us speechless: the 25th April bridge is on the background, together with the Tagus river and Estadio do Restelo‘s standings. That’s the stadium that nowadays hosts Liga Nos, the Portuguese first division.
Belenenses have always played there (one of the few clubs in which José Mourinho played), in a silent road that currently hosts embassies and luxury mansions. The access to a shabby white-and-blue staircase is the informal entry to the Restelo football cathedral.
When the pre-match training ends, no local club representatives are seen around the stadium, desert, with a locked and inaccessible “trophy room”. There the only Portuguese title won by the club will be surely well safeguarded. The Belenenses masterpiece happened in 1945-1946, the only season that, together with Boavista‘s “millennium bug” miracle, saw the victory of a different club from the “Big Three”. That one-and-only title is still remembered with sentimentality today, with their legends like Augusto Silva, not casually called “O Imortal“, the coach that led the group to a success conquered at the last matchday. After falling behind 2-0 against SL Elvas at the half-time break, motivated by a legendary speech, those 11 men brought the Cruz de Cristo on the highest place ever.
It would be the first, last and unparalleled time.
Also thanks to Artur Quaresma‘s goals, 14 during a 22-matches season: if that surname suggests you something that’s because his grandnephew would be called Ricardo and would inherit from Artur a deep love for Futebol. Of that Augusto Silva’s boys’ feat, just a trophy will remain.
Anyway it’s impossible not to be conquered by the naturalness of that battered gate, left inexplicably open, that gives the access to the stadium’s field to everyone willing to venture into the Templar Futebol temple. In a unique panorama you can walk on the pitch and observe those blue chairs, usually empty also in the football weekends. Remembering those distant years when Belém had every possible ambition, even giving justice on a football field to those greatness symbols.
Belenenses remained tiny, vulnerable and fable instead. The few but proud fans that came to Estadio Da Luz on the same night, overwhelmed in every moment by the traditional benfiquista heat, had just one hope: a shoot that hit the post after 50′ by the “great ex” Miguel Rosa, when the team was still down just by one goal. After that Mitroglou, Sálvio and Jonas Gonçalves built the clear and final 4-0 for “The Eagles”, once again a humiliation for the white-and-blue Templars. It feels like that, the life of a football fan from Belém: suffering, fighting, keeping an almost unexplainable passion alive.
The days of Artur Quaresma and Augusto Silva, when Benfica were an opponent at their level, are fading memories. And on the many monuments of the neighbourhood it does not seem to be enough room for new fairytales and conquers.
…YOU CAN’T MISS IN BELÉM:
– Padrão dos Descobrimentos, monument to the discoveries of Vasco da Gama and all the Portuguese adventurous people that brought Lisbon closer to the world.
– A breakfast at the traditional Belém Caféteria, with the local dessert (Pasteis do Belém). A meal at nearby Pão Pão Queijo Queijo, where locals love the fast and unsofisticated wraps served with typical ingredients from Portugal.
– The Belém Tower, marvellous icon of the Portuguese capital city.
– Monastery dos Jerónimos, whose construction was in 1544. There you can find the tombs of renowned explorer Vasco da Gama and poet Luis de Camões.
Photos ©Bruno Bottaro – MondoFutbol.com