AFC Champions League

The ‘Lisbon derby’ that’s played 10,000 miles from home under the lights of the Cotai strip

Macau’s Benfica v Sporting is the only match between affiliate clubs of the Portuguese giants anywhere else in the world

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 April, 2018, 8:01am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 April, 2018, 8:01am

Over 10,000 miles from the Stadium of Light and the Estadio Jose Alvalade in Lisbon lies the Estadio Campo Desportivo. Better known as the Macau Olympic Stadium, this was the scene of Sunday’s Macanese derby where Sporting Clube de Macau took on the House of Sport Lisboa e Benfica in Macau: Sporting v Benfica, the Lisbon derby, in the former Portuguese colony.

The teams were set up by Portuguese expatriates at clubhouses of their parent clubs, Sporting in 1926 and Benfica in 1951. Sporting Macau were the 25th affiliate clubhouse, Benfica Macau the 232nd. Despite all these chapters this is the only derby that takes place anywhere else.

The loyalties of Lisbon are carried across the oceans and fans support their Portuguese team in this Far Eastern facsimile.

It doesn’t seem that the Macau Elite League is the biggest draw in town despite being free entry. Our taxi driver from the ferry has no idea about the game, or that there is football in Macau, and is shocked to hear that it is free. He thinks we are mad to come from Hong Kong to watch the game.

He also wants to take us to another stadium because someone on the radio has said there’s no game at the Olympic Stadium. Like a groundsman’s worst nightmare all of the league’s matches are played in the same stadium, and when we arrive Policia and Cheng Fung are just finishing their game before the Sporting and Benfica squads can take the pitch to warm up.

The 16,272 seater stadium has only one entrance open despite free entry. There are no more than a couple of hundred people in the stadium including the two sides playing and the two who played just before.

A hardcore of perhaps a dozen Benfica ultras sit atop the stand opposite the main one we are in behind a “Carrega Benfica” (“Carry Benfica”) flag, with another group around 200 yards away. These are the only people in that stand.

Our stand is standing room only by comparison. There are maybe 100 altogether. Backroom staff and players clamber over the barrier to come and see friends or to take a seat in the stand.

Despite all this, we’re told this is a good crowd, only bettered by the AFC Cup, which Benfica are competing in the group stage for the first time this year.

The stadium is in the shadows of the sprawling Galaxy Macau at one end and rundown flats on the other. It’s a fitting shorthand for what we are about to see on the pitch: champions Benfica are sponsored by Galaxy Entertainment Group while Sporting don’t boast the same financial backing.

While “90 per cent” of the Benfica players are professional, one fan explains, only three or four on the Sporting side are full-time.

This is reflected in the final score: 5-1 to Benfica Macau.

It’s also reflected in one of Sporting’s subs taking the team photo before the game. The fact that some of their players have black numbers and some have white on the back of their kit. And the lack of ultras, a sole Sporting scarf on show.

The Benfica ultras make plenty of noise in trying to carry their team, with the scorer of the second goal running towards them to celebrate.

Their songs, like the instructions from the coach, the shouts from the players and the advice from the stands, are in English and Portuguese.

“Come on. You rest after the game. Not in the game,” said the Benfica coach in the second half, sporting his Benfica tracksuit top, jeans and Pep Guardiola crop. They will have done.

The champions have won all nine games this season. They are seven points clear. They are on course to win the title for the fifth year in a row, every season since it was rebranded as the Elite League. Sporting were seventh last season but only came back to the top flight in 2014, when they finished second.

Despite the one-sidedness, we’re told that the standard (which was compared to Portugal’s amateur third division) is improving, as is the fan base – the ultras are a recent addition to the scene.

Some of the players have played at a higher level and some may yet do so again – there are rumours that there are scouts watching the game.

Benfica finished bottom of their group in the AFC Cup qualifying round in 2016, their first appearance. Behind Bangladeshi champions Sheikh Jamal Dhanmondi and Kyrgyzstan’s third place Alga. Last year they finished second in the qualifying group behind Kyrgyzstan runners-up Dordoi Bishkek but above Guam champions Rovers FC. This year, third time lucky, they went straight into the group stage for the first time.

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They sit second behind North Korean army side April 25, who they lost 8-0 to in the most recent game. The rematch, confusingly, takes place in Macau on April 25. Benfica can qualify for the next stage by topping the group or being the best runner up. That would be real progress for Macanese football.

They have already made history with two wins.

While Benfica had the better of the Macau exchange it was Sporting fans who enjoyed the night as Porto beat Benfica to go two points clear at the top of the table in the Portuguese league.

That was capped with news that Sporting Lisbon will be coming to Macau this summer before embarking on a tour of the mainland.

That will be music to my colleague’s ears – he only got on the ferry because he thought it was the actual Lisbon derby. But he’ll be back on April 25.