Benfica. One of the most decorated clubs in football’s rich history. Twice champions of Europe, and the winner of more Primeira Liga championships than any other Portuguese side with 32 titles, their breathtaking Estadio Ruiz has been graced by some of the game’s greats. Eusebio. Nènè. Rui Costa. During the late 90s however, the famous red shirt was worn by some less than household names, including Scott Minto, Steve Harkness and Mark Pembridge. The British were coming. Benfica fans just hoped they wouldn’t be staying.
So how did a parade of bog-standard Premier League cloggers end up at one of Europe’s top clubs? There’s a straightforward, two word answer – Graeme Souness. The fiery Scot was in charge of the Lisbon giants from November 1997 to June 1999 and fairly quickly set about trying to turn Benfica into Bolton. The Souness era is considered by many fans to be the club’s lowest ebb. Despite early optimism, Souness always faced an uphill battle to be accepted by the club’s ultras, but he surely couldn’t have envisaged the sight of 80,000 fans waving handkerchiefs at him in ‘mock farewell’ at the end of his reign as Benfica slumped to a 0-3 home defeat to Boavista. Just 18 months after his arrival, Souness found himself locked out of the training ground by the president who’d been so keen to bring him in.
It had been an appointment that raised many an eyebrow at the time, but the extent to which it went wrong makes for quite some story.
Souness himself will tell you that he actually did a decent job in Lisbon under very difficult circumstances, an argument that isn’t entirely devoid of validity. It should be noted that Benfica were firmly ensconced in a wilderness period long before Souness arrived, and the fact that he was appointed at all – fresh from a disastrous four month stint with Serie B Torino – is testament to that. Benfica had only won one league title during the 90s (in 1994) and were mired in financial difficulties, being in debt to the tune of tens of millions.
The former Liverpool star emerged as an unlikely ace up the sleeve of businessman and Benfica presidential candidate Dr Joao Vale e Azevedo, who vowed to bring him in if elected. Believe it or not, such a promise was not the electoral poison you might think. On paper, Souness’ CV wasn’t that bad, given he’d won trophies at three big European clubs in Rangers, Liverpool and Galatasaray.
Azevedo won the election somehow, and was true to his word in delivering Souness; and for all that his unpopularity would grow during his tenure, and for all that the club performed dismally in Europe under his care, Benfica managed second and third place league finishes in his two seasons at the club, remaining in title contention just three games from the end of the campaign that resulted in his departure. All this was achieved against the backdrop of a financial crisis that only deepened during Azevedo’s dubious reign. Debts spiralled, with Lisbon courts freezing the club’s banks accounts . When Souness signed Karel Poborsky from Manchester United, the Red Devils had to go to FIFA for arbitration after Benfica’s cheque bounced and they failed to come up with the cash.
“I have turned this club around in just over a year”, Souness would claim when the pressure really began to mount, pointing to his reign being the longest of any Benfica boss in seven years.
So why the hate for Souness then, given that he kept the club among Portugal’s elite despite their financial peril? Souness himself blamed the huge expectations of Benfica’s supporters, who demanded success regardless of the restrictions the manager had to work with. “Each game was all or nothing”, he’d later tell The Times, and despite being no stranger to managing big clubs, the pressure seemed to affect him in Lisbon. The media coverage was also unlike anything he was used to, with some 40 journalists and 10 camera crews attending every training session. Compared to the Portuguese press, Souness claimed, their English counterparts were “absolute gentlemen”.
Benfica’s decline was undeniably a bitter pill for their fans to swallow, especially as their loss was their hated rivals’ gain, Porto sweeping all before them. Yet Souness’ unpopularity stemmed not purely from failure, but from the manager’s complete lack of respect for the traditions of both Benfica and the Portuguese game itself. He refused to learn the language, despite claiming he had ‘teach yourself’ books at home. He constantly flew back to the UK. He played negative, English-style long-ball football. He and his (English) backroom staff seemed to have scant knowledge of or interest in the other teams in the league, as detailed in Phil Town’s excellent contemporary piece for When Saturday Comes chronicling Souness’ stormy tenure in Lisbon, which describes a clenchingly embarrassing interview in which his assistant Phil Boersma was unable to name a first XI of players at Primeira Liga clubs who impressed him. Scouting was not a priority, it seemed.
Souness seemed to despise Portuguese-speaking players. A young Nuno Gomes, who was beginning to make his mark at the club at the time, told FourFourTwo that his Brazilian team mate Amaral was castigated for kicking the ball with the outside of his boot, the manager telling him “we’re not in Brazil now”. Another young man from Brazil at the club was 19-year-old Deco, who was making a splash on loan at Alverca. Souness wasn’t sufficiently impressed however, and allowed the man who would become one of the outstanding playmakers of the following decade to leave on a free – he was soon snapped up by Porto.
A favourite theme of Souness’ was that Portuguese players lacked the heart and desire and professional ethics for a scrap. He talked of how he was calm under pressure because he had “a Scottish mentality, not a Latin one”.
In another apocryphal tale, he told The Times that he installed gym equipment at the training ground that went unused by his squad for months, when suddenly there was a stampede for it – the reason being, he suggested, that “summer was on the way and they wanted to look good for the girls on the beach”, and that this mattered more to them than their football.
No, the fancy dans could keep their tricks and skills. What Souness wanted was some old-fashioned grit. And where else to find it but back in Blighty? In came the Brits in their droves. As well as Minto (who was actually signed by Souness’ predecessor five months earlier), Pembridge and Harkness, there was Brian Deane, Gary Charles and Michael Thomas. However, while it’s easy to deride Souness for his lack of imagination, it should be noted that not every British signing was a failure. Minto did a perfectly good job on the left side of midfield, while Pembridge was solid if unspectacular in the middle in his 19 appearances. Saunders notched a respectable enough 5 in 17, but it was Deane who proved something of a revelation. Fondly remembered by Benfica fans, the big striker proved a fine, hardworking foil for Gomes, and scored 11 in 18 (including goals in thrashings of Porto and Sporting) during his Portuguese stopover. Signed for £1m from Sheffield Utd, he was eventually sold to Middlesbrough for three times that fee. Enjoying his stay, he would later admit his regret at not sticking around longer in Lisbon, despite describing life at the club as being “like a novel”.
Other Englishmen fared less well. Steve Harkness was remembered on one fans’ forum as having the mobility of “a rock with two eyes”. He is remembered only for the back of his shirt simply bearing the name ‘Steve’. Gary Charles’ time at the club was marred by injury. Charles was at the beginning of his descent into alcoholism, and the pressure, unfamiliarity and hostility he experienced did little to help.
The worst experiences however, were endured by Michael Thomas. Lauded by Souness as a player with “big balls” on his arrival, the Arsenal legend – 32 by this point – was well past his sell-by date. Becoming the on-field symbol of the Souness regime, he was soon feeling the wrath of his own team’s fans, having to be substituted in one game owing to the ferocity of the sustained catcalls directed at him. A training ground brawl with Ukrainian international Sergei Kandaurov hardly endeared him to the club’s brass, and ultimately Benfica disgracefully just stopped paying him – he was forced to go to FIFA, recouping £750,000 in damages.
By spring 1999, Benfica’s problems on and off the pitch were only getting worse, and what little patience supporters had for Souness was long gone. A popular joke among disillusioned fans at the time went: “Azevedo, Souness and [club captain] Joao Pinto are in a plane crash: who survives? Benfica.” With the Boavista defeat leaving their title challenge in ruins, Souness was informed in April that he would be replaced by Jupp Heynkes at the end of the season. The relationship between the outgoing manager and Azevedo begand to sour. Souness was put on gardening leave after a 1-1 draw with Campomaiorense, along with Boersma after Azevedo criticised his “passivity” on the bench. Harkness was also suspended, allegedly for mocking the president in the dressing room. Souness was furious at not receiving his full pay off, labelling Azevedo “a dangerous man” and threatening to have “some latinos” beat him up. It was an unsurprisingly undignified end to a marriage that had seemed doomed from the start.
Azevedo’s role in Benfica’s financial problems came to light soon afterwards. He spent two and a half years in prison for embezzling hundreds of thousands of pounds’ worth in transfer fees to pay for his yacht, the ironically-titled ‘Lucky Me’. He currently resides in London, under controversial circumstances.
Souness returned to England and had a fairly successful stint at Blackburn, winning the Carling Cup in 2002, and an altogether less successful spell at Newcastle.The British contingent were frozen out when Souness left, made to train with the kids, and were soon on their way back to England themselves.
Perhaps the biggest victims were Benfica themselves. Just two seasons after Souness’ sacking, they finished 6th in the Primeira Liga – their lowest ever final league position. In 2000, their financial woes were eased to an extent when the club was bailed out by English merchant bank Altium– but while they have recovered from the dark days of the 1990s, their ‘bouncing back’ has been very much in the Alan Partridge mould. They’ve won two liga titles, but find themselves well and truly in Porto’s shadow. Perhaps those handkerchiefs are coming in handy for altogether different reasons…