Behind Benfica's remarkable rise to Chelsea challengers in Champions League

Benfica Women graphic 2020
The Portuguese giants only debuted their women's team in 2018 but they are already in the knockout rounds of Europe's premier competition

When Benfica’s women’s team held their first-ever training session ahead of the 2018-19 season, vice-president Fernando Tavares had an idea.

Instead of training at the club's facilities, he arranged for the session to take place at Estadio Nacional. Once the players arrived, he explained why.

“We are here because I want to show you where you are going to play in May to fight for the Portuguese Cup,” he said.

Sure enough, at the end of that season, Benfica were there for the Portuguese Cup final. Not only that, they were victorious, beating Valadares Gaia 4-0 to win their maiden trophy.

This Wednesday, three years on from the announcement that this historic club would be forming a women’s team, they will face Chelsea in the last 32 of the Women’s Champions League.

To have achieved promotion, won the Portuguese Cup, the Portuguese Super Cup and secured a place in Europe in such a short space of time is not only a testament to the work of the players, but those behind the scenes, too.

“Having a women’s team was a must, not a nice thing to have, but really a must,” Tavares tells Goal.

It’s that attitude that has got the club this far. Their ambition, for Benfica to be one of the biggest clubs in women’s football, is reflected both on and off the pitch.

“This is a professional team costing us €2 million (£1.8m/$2.4m) per year,” the vice-president reveals, with everything the men’s team have – from the level of analysis to the quality of medical support – available to the women.

“Already for the Portuguese dimension, this is a huge, huge project, not very different from the type of budget that Atletico Madrid or Barcelona have for their women. It shows the level of support that we are giving to the team.”

That commitment immediately gave the project huge appeal to players.

“In all terms of your life, they are there to help you,” Pauleta, the Spanish winger who left top-flight Braga to join Benfica in the second division, tells Goal. “I'm so far from my home and here I have everything because of Benfica.

“This is the most important thing for a player, that the club help her on the field and off of the field.”

It’s no wonder that the team are getting results on the pitch, too, then. The Eagles’ first game was a triumphant 28-0 win over Ponte de Frielas and, just months later, they would better that with a record-breaking 32-0 win over Pego.

It was the latter result which caught the attention of Cloe Lacasse, the Canadian forward who would join in the summer of 2019.

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“It popped up on my Instagram and that was definitely the first time [I heard about them],” she explains to Goal.

“The men's club has such a rich history and now the women are trying to build that same profile, obviously being much younger.

“We have all these young talents, but we also have the experience to match it and that was a big sell for me. I see the potential that this club has to not only be successful right now, but also in the future.

“I definitely think that this club can become a top-10 club in Europe, without a doubt, especially the way that we're going right now.”

As Benfica assembled their senior team, most of those young players had to be brought in from elsewhere, but now the club boasts women’s teams at Under-19, U17, U15 and U13 level, as well as a ‘B’ team that play in the third division of Portuguese football.

“To create an academy, as we have for the men, is very important for us,” Tavares explains. “We have already five players that started with us in the U17 team who are in the first team."

For Wednesday's clash with Chelsea, it will be the experience of their older players that is vital, though. Carole Costa, who has over 100 caps for Portugal, is one such veteran.

“During my career, I have learned that a squad with young players combined with older ones provides the perfect recipe. That is what I see in our team, a huge potential,” she says.

“The Champions League is a top competition which requires our union [and] concentration, while the key word is resilience. I’ll do everything so that my experience might help the team.”

But even for a player with Costa’s experience, this is new territory, which, like many of her team-mates, she describes as “a dream”. Former Manchester City defender Matilde Fidalgo is the only player in Benfica’s squad with experience of the Champions League beyond the qualifying stages.

The Eagles have already shown that experience doesn’t determine success, though. After beating PAOK in the first round of qualifying, Benfica upset Anderlecht with a 2-1 victory that highlighted their growth.

“We are more united," Pauleta explains, comparing Benfica's team in 2018 to the team today. "We have gone through bad moments.

“This year, we played Anderlecht and started with the score 1-0 to them, and we had to recover the game. That is good for our team because now we know how to compete in bad moments.

Benfica Women 2020

“In the first year, we were in the second division and things were easy. We wouldn’t be able to face more difficult matches or more difficult things. Now, we are prepared for that.”

Such resilience will be required as they face the reigning Women’s Super League champions, who have the most expensive player in the world in their ranks, but a result is not the be-all and end-all.

“We are not going to do this in one go,” Tavares adds. “The match against Chelsea is going to be a very difficult game for us, but I believe in four, five or six years' time, Benfica is going to be there.

“I strongly believe that it will be possible to put Benfica in the top 16 of Europe, or even in the top eight.”

The most crucial thing about that ambition is that the players believe in it too. Much like they did on that historic first day at Estadio Nacional.