Speaking to the chairman of Benfica's official London club
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Casa do Benfica in Wandsworth Road, London, is visually stunning for a football fan. The place is adorned with all things Benfica. Panorama's of the Estadio da Luz, pictures of past players, scarves, boards with past trophies and televisions to watch games, as it's around noon, they are tuned into Portuguese TV. The London Casa is number 250 of the "Homes of Benfica" network, clubhouses where Benfica fans and members of the Portuguese community can meet to eat, drink and socialise. I'm here to interview Jose Viana. A football coach by trade, he is chairman and welfare officer of
Sport London e Benfica. Founded in 1981, by Benfica and Sporting Lisbon fans, it was intended to be a community club for London's Portuguese community.
It is affiliated with the Lisbon club and is the 22nd such affiliation and the first outside of Portugal.
Jose takes me upstairs, where it's quieter. The chairs are adorned with the club badge and on the walls are pictures of all the side's national championship-winning squads. Everything is imported from Portugal and the most recent refurbishment cost around £20,000, I'm told.
Jose's background as a coach involves coaching kids from the local Portuguese community to represent Portugal at events during Euro 1996, he oversaw trials at St. Regent's Park and a game at Meadow Lane, home of Notts County.
He first became involved with Benfica London in 2005, at the time the side had a reasonably successful Sunday League side, but he only agreed to join if certain conditions were met: “One of the conditions was to join the English National League system.
“They agreed to it and that’s how I started."
He explains: "I always heard that Sport London e Benfica would one day be professional," but had "never seemed to be given the push to do it," Jose simply thought "Ok, no one else has done it, let's see if I can do it."
The club had to start off from the bottom of the pyramid. They joined the Middlesex County Football League and were promoted in their first season. In anticipation for Middlesex Premier Division football, the club would have needed a new ground in case they won promotion again: "So, we moved into Hanwell Town Football Club, which had the conditions for us to go up if we did well and got promoted."
Playing at Reynolds Field in Perivale, the club won the Premier Division and went semi-pro, joining the Spartan South Midlands League. This also meant they became the first club from the Portuguese community to play in the FA Vase, reaching the second round.
Winning the league was a bittersweet moment, as the players had their belongings stolen in the changing room, there was a fire at the local hospital, visible from the pitch, which meant police did not come to investigate: "None of our players got their stuff back", Jose recalls.
They played established semi-pro sides North Greenford United and Eton Manor, the latter being formerly coached by Alf Ramsey. Jose's face lights up when recalling this fact. The club's rise was to stop there as despite looking to eventually enter the FA Cup, running the club "became financially non-viable".
“Problem being - we don’t have a ground, so we have to groundshare, being a London based club, it’s hard to progress if you don’t have a strong base."
Hanwell Town had provided a good ground suitable for the club and its' needs: "They, unfortunately, decided to take a quick buck with another team," Jose explains.
Benfica was paying around £12,000 a year in rent but when another club offered about £4,000 more, the club was kicked out. Ironically, Hanwell's new tenants left after six months.
Without a ground, the club was forced to resign from the league. Jose wasn't involved at board level at the time and was unaware of the tenancy agreement in place: “What I would have done is set up something long term, knowing how important the ground was."
He cites Wimbledon as an example of what happens when a club loses its' ground, but insists he will not give up: “Haven’t stopped looking, haven’t stopped hoping, that something might turn up and I think only then will it be possible for us to go in that direction again."
As part of his initial involvement with the club, Jose had helped set up a youth set up, and a combination of these players and the coaches formed a futsal team.
were invited to join the National Futsal League. They finished runners-up in the national second division, their opponents having signed professional players to edge them in the last game between the two sides to win the league.
After one more season, the club “decided not to do futsal anymore, because we decided the FA weren't promoting futsal properly.
"It just wasn't for us."
The club now focuses on youth training: “I think youth football is quite addictive in that you see players progress and develop. That's a massive plus for me."
Being a coach is hard work, of course. Jose is very busy after school and on weekends and spends most of the day catching up on paperwork to make sure the club is running smoothly and safely. The club was inspected by Middlesex FA, too: “They said we have a lovely club, well supported and the parents love us to bits, which is the whole reason we do what we do."
He also does occasional work for the Chelsea Foundation. The links between the two allow for players to move between the two if need be for their development. This allows Jose to see what academies need to thrive as well as learn more in terms of scouting.
He has attended an IPSO (International Professional Scouting Organisation) course and has previously attended FA coaching courses, something he admits he is "critical" of.
"You have Level 1, which the FA try to push as much as they can because obviously what they want is to do is tick a box and say we’ve got all these coaches fully qualified." The original Level 1 and Level 2 courses are described by Jose as "restrictive" but the new youth modules introduced are more creative and give more freedom to learn.
The problem comes in the jump to UEFA B, with a limited number of places available on the courses. For example, Middlesex FA have 24 places despite having hundreds of coaches with FA Level 2 badges. Ex-professionals are given priority and are "fast-tracked" onto UEFA B: “They are being catered for and not the people who want to be, simply coaches.
“I think that’s where the FA are very wrong."
So, what are the short term plans for Sport London e Benfica's future?
“We would like to reach the point where we have teams throughout all ages." The club has grown considerably in the past year through word of mouth and the set-up may look to moving down to South London for a new base.
The club are seeking an elite team for each age group, having previously sent teams to play a Benfica academy side in Lisbon and a tournament in Belgium, these elite sides will represent the club in international tournaments.
Jose admits the club doesn't have "massive, massive links" to the Lisbon branch but with Benfica having several sister clubs around the world, they previously looked at playing matches against London Benfica in London, Canada.
For now, however, the club has shelved those plans: “We’ve held back this year, we don’t want to do everything and then do nothing. I’m the sort of person who would like to get things under control, provide quality coaching to our kids and not to get too ahead of ourselves, in terms of what we want to do, ideally at some point but not for now."
The club would also like to start a girl's side. Currently, they have boys and mixed sides. A coach who trains next to the club in Paddington has expressed interest in setting one up.
Lois Roach, who trained with the club is currently playing for Italian Serie B women's side Fiorentia and has previously played for Ireland at youth level as well as Reading and Arsenal.
Another player, Emily, whose older brother also played for Benfica, is part of the Man City set up. Jose recalls how boys were hesitant to tackle her, "she looks quite girly" but she was happy to "clobber" them, he says, while smashing his hand against his fist.
The club has been hesitant to apply for FA grants but Jose believes this has been a missed opportunity: "If we can generate income ourselves, we’d rather do that, then getting some sort of grant. That’s been our downfall because we could do a lot more if we did go down that route." This may be something the club looks at again in the future.
Despite the setbacks of recent years, the club is starting to grow again and Jose is determined to continue to make a success of the club and help the side's young players reach their potential and enjoy playing football at the same time.
Image Credit - Gursimran Hans.
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