Scott Mcintyre takes a closer look at Benfica de Macau, a club taking the AFC Cup by storm and making waves back home.
A supremely dominant force in their domestic league and now a genuine surprise packet in their first-ever tilt in the group stages of the AFC Cup, Benfica de Macau are a wonderful illustration of the growth of Asian football in those corners of the continent that don’t receive much attention.
There aren’t many clubs anywhere across the vast expanse of FIFA’s 200-odd nations that can say they’ve won their domestic league for the past four seasons in a row.
It’s almost certain that there are none that have matched the frankly astonishing achievement of having only lost a total of three matches across that four-year span as is the case with Macau’s domestic heavyweights.
Even with that local dominance when the club qualified for the group stage of this year’s AFC Cup – for the first time in their history – they were expected to be the whipping boys of the section.
2-0 down at home to Taiwanese side Hang Yuen on the opening match day, things were going according to that script only for a dramatic second-half fightback that saw them snatch a 3-2 victory.
Remarkably, they then backed that up with a 3-2 win in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, against a Hwaebul side that was stacked with talent and now find themselves sitting top of the section.
Next up are back-to-back matches against one of North Korea’s genuine powerhouses in the April 25 side; the second match which remarkably falls on that exact date which is symbolic for both DPR Korea and the nation that Benfica was founded on, Portugal, given it’s the anniversary of the 1974 Carnation Revolution in that country.
Benfica de Macau were established in the early 1950s by a fan group as a branch of the Portuguese giants of the same name but for much of their history they languished in the lower tiers of Macau’s amateur football system until a new push to revitalize the club was undertaken a decade ago and it’s fair to say that those dreams of being a strong local club and a regular participant in AFC events are well and truly on the right course.
Fox Sports Asia caught up with one of the men who has been a guiding force behind the rise of the club in their General Manager, Duarte Alves, as he touched on the success of the club, their desire to be a symbol of football in Macau and just what it was like to play in front of almost 30,000 supporters in North Korea.
FSA: Duarte, it’s a wonderful story the success we’ve seen with the club but can you give us a feeling firstly as to what football is like in Macau and how your clubs has been able to reach such unprecedented levels of success over the past half a decade?
Duarte Alves: Football here starts pretty much with the history of Macau and as you know we used to be Portuguese colony for almost 500 years and the influence of Portuguese football in Macau was great throughout all the colonies so in the 1950s a branch or fan club of Benfica in Lisbon was founded here in Macau and that is where we came from.
As for the league it’s been running for almost 40 years but has stabilized in last decade or so with four divisions but one of the challenges we face is with the venues to train and play in so all the clubs in the first division share the one stadium whilst those in the lower leagues play at two university stadiums and the third division has to use a field in a greyhound racing track so for a small place such as Macau with under 30 square kilometres and only 700,000 people this is an issue.
For our club, when we decided to try and become a force in football here we had a meeting and recognised that first we must become champions and then we can speak to the Football Association and explain where we wanted to go in Asia and it’s been going quite well over the past couple of years.
We’ve been building a team and to do that you need to keep key players and improve year-to-year and we’ve also been trying to represent the spirit of Macau with a multicultural mix of Portuguese and Chinese fusion and try to bring that out when we play in Asia.
The fundamental idea though is to try and win every time and everywhere we participate – that’s our mindset.
FSA: Two wins from your first two AFC matches, I imagine that has perhaps even exceeded your own expectations; what has the whole experience been like so far?
DA: This was not only the first time that we had participated in the group stage of the AFC Cup but also the first time that we’d hosted a match and given we have usually only a couple of hundred supporters at our local matches to see almost 1,500 for this game was a great moment for us.
We are also very surprised about the performances given it’s our first time but it’s a great story and we’re so proud and happy to be contributing to the promotion of the Macau name in the football arena.
The tournament is a big challenge and we imagined it was more about seeing where we stand given the other teams have much higher rankings than us and we know our limitations and the strengths of our opponents so we were trying to do our best and bring results for Macau and we managed to do that so let’s see where we can go.
FSA: Of course, you’ve also had the experience of playing in North Korea, what was that like?
DA: At this level finding information about other teams is quite difficult so we were stepping into the dark in some way and then we traveled to this mysterious, mystical country where we didn’t know what to expect but it was a fantastic experience from the moment we stepped onto the plane.
The local federation received us and they made sure we had everything we needed for training, accommodation and food and matchday was surreal.
I personally have never stepped into an environment with so many fans singing and chanting like you see on TV and when the match finished we went to thank the local fans in the spirit of football and they cheered back to us and it’s beautiful for football that idea of fair play and it made us feel part of Asian football and world football.
FSA: You must be thrilled what these results are doing not just for your club but for Macau football more generally, no?
DA: Ever since we’ve tried to join these Asian competitions we’ve been doing it for Macau football not just the club.
By playing at this level we’re trying to motivate the other local clubs to follow our path for more professional or organised and competitive football and being able to see a thousand more people at the stadium for the AFC Cup match with everyone shouting and celebrating together gave me a sense that this is not about the cub but about Macau football and the messages of support we’ve got truly represents that.
I’m honoured that we’re able to bring this joy and competitiveness to Macau football fans because we’re trying to promote our region and our homeland.
Photo credit: Benfica de Macau Facebook page