76 years ago Félix Bermudes, the 8th president of Sport Lisboa e Benfica, asked the same question. He began his answer like this: “I am a benfiquista because I have my sights set on that North Star which guides me towards the dawn of fraternity, which will teach souls how to construct a better humanity. That spirit of fraternity united the benfiquista family into one whole, where the rich and the poor, the illiterate and the cultured, the powerful and the humble shed the differences that separate them, and where all are equal in their devotion to a flag, to an emblem, to symbol, to an ideal!”
To the modern ear, of an adepto or even sócio, who has grown up in the era of commercialized modern football & one could add, modern society as well, this is not only a strange answer but, an unnecessarily complicated - even perhaps offensive- one. For most of us, the simple question is deserving of a simple answer: “I am a benfiquista because my family were benfiquistas” Or “I was born a benfiquista.” Indeed for many, if not most, of which I include myself, this is also my answer. Bermudes’ discussion of fraternity, building a better humanity, of equality, of unity- all of this, to the modern ear sounds strange and inappropriate. It is the stuff of politics; of morals and utopias. To which the modern tongue adds- “What does all of this have to do with futebol?”
A Complicated Answer to a Simple Question
António Calado was born on July 15th 1927 in Cabeção , in the province of Alto Alentejo. Born into a poor family of petty day traders of wares, in a poor country ruled by fascism, futebol was a popular sport not only to be played- with his older and younger brother and his classmates- but also to be followed, intensely. And intensely did António Calado follow futebol, in particular Sport Lisboa e Benfica.
His grandson knew this one by heart. How could he not? So many times he had heard the stories told to him by his grandpa of this man, Eusébio.
By the mid-30’s Sport Lisboa e Benfica was already a club with a national dimension and arguably the largest club- of sócios and adeptos- in Portugal. Its numerous victories in the Campeonatos de Lisboa, the early versions of the Campeonato de Portugal and the victorious exploits of Benfica cyclist José Maria Nicolau had taken the águia of the Lisbon based club to the four corners of the country thus contributing to the national popularity of Benfica. But it was futebol- and the stars of the Benfica squads of the mid to late 30’s that contained players like Vítor Silva and Espírito Santo- and it was these players that the young António Calado and his brothers emulated on the streets and pelados, as they kicked their ball made of trapo.
In 1939 Sport Lisboa e Benfica founded their 15th affiliated Casa do Benfica in Cabeção- which became known as Sport Cabeção e Benfica. While by that time António had left Cabeção with his family to go to Montijo, in search of better economic opportunities as so many would be forced to do, Sport Cabeção e Benfica became a reference point whenever he returned, as it was for many natives of Cabeção. Not only did they find at the club a place to practice different sports−fishing, futebol, table tenis etc− but they found a place to socialize, to drink, to discuss, to read the paper, to take part in cultural events etc. They found a space where, regardless of their economic background and occupation- sócios and adeptos and sympathizers, could participate in and support an institution as equals. To put it more directly, in the Casas do Benfica that were peppered throughout the country, they found a social space in which even poor people of low economic standing, such as the Calado family and many others like them, could engage in forms of social participation-whether of a sporting or cultural character- which had for the most part been reserved for the well-to do.
These spaces were important for another reason. In a society starved of free civil society associations, the Casas do Benfica and the institution itself, could easily been seen as providing quasi forms of democratic civic particpation. After all, Benfica had democratic elections nearly every year to elect the club president, in addition to lively general assembly meetings of sócios, where debates and disagreements were expressed openly, in a society where there was no democracy, no freedom of expression and no legal opposition and no free elections. In the Casas do Benfica, the ideal that Bermudes was discussing had a real material form. E PLURIBUS UNUM was more than a slogan on an emblem but a first principle inscribed into its foundations.
Those words confused me. I had only heard of the nobreza during my Portuguese history classes. What did this have to do with futebol?
Many years later and thousands of kilometers away from Cabeção, from Montijo and from Portugal, in Canada, António Calado would pick up his grandson from kindergarten and take him to the local Portuguese social club. There he would teach his young grandson how to read. He would start, “B-E-N-F-I-C-A”, “Ok carrapato pequenino, what does that say?” His grandson, happily would yell “BENFICA!” “Muito bem!” He would reply. “Ok another one. E-U-S-É-B-I-O. How about this one?” His grandson knew this one by heart. How could he not? So many times he had heard the stories told to him by his grandpa of this man, Eusébio. Eusébio, the greatest Benfica player of all time, the Black Panther whose estouro was second to none! Eusébio, the man who stuffed Di Stefano’s jersey down his shorts after winning the European Champions Cup! Eusébio, the man with the simple but most beautiful celebration of all (according to his grandfather): hand in the air and saltar! And so, António Calado’s reading sessions with his grandson, as so many other things in his life, would always seek to join the agradável ao útil (the pleasant to the useful); words such as COLUNA, JOSÉ TORRES, ÁGUAS, GERMANO, SIMÕES, COSTA PEREIRA, TÓNI, ERIKSSON, ISAÍAS, VALDO, SCHWARZ, LISBOA, were the building blocks of his grandsons literacy.
When his grandson grew older and António Calado grew even older, his grandson, now forever committed to Sport Lisboa e Benfica because of him, because of the reading lessons, because of the numerous times his grandfather had taken him to watch the glorioso at the social club on television, because of the 1st Benfica jersey his grandfather had bought him, because his grandfather had taken him to the velha catedral to watch Benfica play a friendly against AC Milan, asked “Papi, why are you a Benfiquista?” He replied, “Benfica was a popular club; for the people, of the people. Others, like Sporting weren’t. They belonged to the condes, to the nobreza.
“We were not nobreza. We were poor.”
Those words confused me. I had only heard of the nobreza during my Portuguese history classes. What did this have to do with futebol? I had asked a simple question. My grandfather, Antonio “Papi” Calado, had given me a complex answer that I could not comprehend. Little did I know then, but that question, and his answer, would go on to have more of an influence on my intellectual, personal and political formation than I could have ever anticipated in that moment.
And so my answer to that very simple question is a complicated one. I am a benfiquista because my grandfather was a benfiquista. He was a benfiquista because in Benfica he −as so many others− found a club that was more than a club. A club that, in addition to providing a light of hope in the midst of economic misery and fascism through its glorious conquistas, also provided a space where people of all classes, and in particular from the lower classes of society, could actively participate as equals in not only supporting their clube and its various teams, but in actively participating in its modalities and shaping its direction. It gave people a sense of common purpose and hope; hope in a better world. A much better one than the one they inhabited.
Today, I am a benfiquista not only because my grandfather was, not only because I love futebol and the beautiful camisolas berrantes, but because behind these things are the values that are inscribed at the heart of the club, E PLURIBUS UNUM, which provide me with a light, a moral and ethical code, a North Star in the current agonized state of the world.
***This piece is dedicated to my dearest grandfather, António Calado who passed on December 15th, 2019. A lifelong benfiquista, who is responsible for much of the person I am today, not least of providing the spark for my chama imensa. Um abraço eterno Papi.
▶ Texto enviado pelo benfiquista Guio Jacinto