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Game on: when soccer becomes religion - Portugal in the World Cup

Ah, the World Cup is here again! As for players, Cristiano Ronaldo is one of the best in the world today, and names like Pauleta, Eusebio, Figo and others are legends in the game. Portugal has just won the European Cup, Beach Soccer World Cup and there is a lot of great talent to see in Portuguese clubs.

As the 2018 World Cup approaches, this fall will be a good opportunity to see the Portuguese talent after the competition.

Soccer has been played in Portugal since 1875. The nation’s top major league – the Primeira Liga, was founded in 1934. Teams like Benfica, FC Porto and Sporting are powerhouses, playing in state of the art stadiums.  In fact, Portuguese teams have won the prestigious European Cup four times and the UEFA Cup twice.


Soccer, or futebol, is constantly present on Portuguese media, either in dedicated newspapers and news websites (and there are plenty) or even taking over prime time TV with talk shows and recaps.                 

And this year, the Portuguese soccer league (Liga NOS) will be one of the most vibrant ever! After years of alternate dominance between Porto and Benfica, Sporting are now back in the race after having snatched Benfica’s coach (in a moved that sparked nationwide anger) and scaled up their investments in new signings (such as Costa Rica star Bryan Ruiz).

If league champions Benfica are still looking to find reinforcements that match their rivals’ new hires. Porto made the news all over the world with the acquisition of Real Madrid’s goalkeeper Iker Casillas, and has splashed millions of euros in promising young players.

But even though the league is now a three-horse race, as it used to be before Sporting went through financial dire straits, there are a couple well organized underdogs: the well-financed Braga, backed by superstar player agent Jorge Mendes, and well organized teams like Vitória de Guimarães or Marítimo, based on Madeira Island.

If you have been to a soccer stadium in Portugal before, you may skip to our region-by-region list. If not, you need to know that going to a soccer stadium, and especially during major games, is probably the most enthusiastic experience you will have during your stay. Imagine thousands of people chanting supporting songs, engaging in mass choreographies, jumping, screaming, crying… and you start to get a sense of how much soccer matters to the Portuguese. All this in a safe environment and at a very reasonable price for US standards. A big game like “Sporting vs. Benfica” or “Benfica-Porto” will set you back anywhere from $20 to $40 USD, while a lower profile game may sell for under $15 USD.

And, of course, there are stadiums that are worth visiting solely for their architecture, such as Braga’s Axa (designer by Pritzker-winner Eduardo Souto Moura), Porto’s Dragão, by Portuguese architect Manuel Salgado or Benfica’s Estádio da Luz(Stadium of Light), by Australian architect Damon Lavelle. If you are into sports history, Benfica, Sporting and Porto also boast their own museums!

Even if you don’t enjoy soccer, you have probably heard the name “Cristiano Ronaldo." The 3-time FiFA Word Player of the Year rose through the ranks at Sporting before signing for Manchester United. Well, there are many news promises playing in the Portuguese league and every year new gems are discovered. So, you get to know about them before the whole world does!


One may say that visiting Portugal and not going to a soccer game is like…. Well you have heard all this before so here are some of the teams you should not miss during your trip to Portugal:        


Porto & the Norte region 

Futebol Clube do Porto

Known as Porto, after its namesake city, this team as rose consistently in the last decades, especially after a Champions Cup win in 1987, a UEFA cup (now Europa League) in 2003, and a Champions League victory with [now Chelsea coach] Jose Mourinho on the wheel. Porto, the city, was just voted best Under-The-Radar Romantic Destination by the USA Today readers, and going to a game at the new Dragon Stadium can be just as exciting as Port wine tastings or cruise rides on the Douro river.


Sporting Clube de Braga

Braga is the youngest city in the country. With a vibrant young nightlife and a beautiful historic center, this town is also a hotbed for startups and not far from the beautiful Peneda-Gerês National Park and the birth-city of Portugal, Guimarães. The latter is home to a namesake team (Vitória) and the rival between the two is almost as intense as the one between Lisbon clubs Sporting and Benfica.



Centro region

Académica Futebol Clube

Ever heard about this one? Académica is the oldest club in the Iberian Peninsula, having been founded in 1887 with the merger of two separate teams. It is said to be the 4thPortuguese club in terms of number of supporters, and is emotionally and historically related to the student life in the town of Coimbra and its university (the oldest in the country). The players were once all students. Their home stadium was rebuilt for the 2004European Championship, and can now host 30,000 people. You may not see the best game in your life as far as quality, but you will certainly have fun mingling with the student supporters of “Briosa,” as the club is nicknamed, before, during and after the game.


Lisbon region

Sport Lisboa e Benfica

Benfica is the biggest club in Portugal. Said to have around 6 million supporters, it is also the club with biggest number of official supporters in the world (with paid membership). Although they have won the national title 2 years in a row, Benfica is far from its glory decades when Portuguese superstar Eusébio rivaled with Pelé for the title of best player in the world. However, in recent years, Benfica has been making a name for themselves as a jumping platform for young promising players, mostly coming from South American or the Balkans. It is one of the teams that have profited the most worldwide with player transfers in the last 5 years! Estádio da Luz (Stadium of Light)typically has the best attendance in the league and, at the beginning of every game, the club’s official eagle flies around the stadium before it lands on top of the club’s logo set on the field.


Sporting Clube de Portugal

Founded in 1906, 2 years after rival Benfica, by local Lisbon aristocrats. In contrast with its rivals (said to be the team of the people), Sporting was generally considered the club of the Portuguese elite. With time, Sporting’s backing extended beyond the wealthy and its current administration calculates their fan base at around 3 millions people. The glory days of the late 1940’s were followed by occasional titles, but also difficult periods of mixed results, including an 18-year spell without winning the Portuguese league during the 80’s and 90’s. However, this has never drawn Sporting’s supporters away from the stadium and, in fact, these are some of the most passionate group of fans in Portugal!Sporting is also considered an expert in youth development, having already brought up two FIFA World Players of the Year (Luis Figo-now retired-and Cristiano Ronaldo).


Algarve region


Portimão is one of those popular Algarve seaside cities that attracts thousands of tourists every year. Exciting nightlife, beach and water parks are common attractions in the area. In terms of soccer, however, the Algarve does not host any big teams, but rather historic but small ones. Founded in 1914 by the son of a Portimão native and English national, who brought a soccer ball from England, where he had been studying. You won’t be astonished by the architecture or shining lights of the big stadium, but you will rather encounter a very loyal group of locals whose identity is strongly intertwined with their town’s club. They play on the second division of Portuguese football and, sometimes, the level of soccer is more one-on-one. And it is a great way to cap off an Algarve fish dish and a glass of wine from Lagoa.


Madeira region

Club Sport Marítimo

Located on Madeira’s capital Funchal, Marítimo was founded 15 days before the establishment of the Portuguese Republic in 2010 (these facts aren’t related). Although there is another team on the first league (Nacional), Marítimo is unquestionably the iconic soccer club of the Portuguese island of Madeira. Because this territory has always seen emigration in large numbers, Marítimo has a small but loyal fan base from its hometown to countries like Brazil, South Africa, Venezuela and England. They are one of the few teams outside the top-3 that have won the national championship (1926) and are typically a very tough opponent for any team, including the mainland giants. Oh, and their stadium has sea views, so how could you not want to travel to the hometown of the great Cristiano Ronaldo (Check out his statue).


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