An astonishing turnout of Portuguese supporters helped LOSC Lille Métropole establish a new attendance record against SL Benfica at the Stade de France last night.
Lille's previous UEFA Champions League game against Manchester United FC attracted 66,470 fans, which was the biggest crowd for a French club playing at home in a European tie. That mark stood for just three weeks after 76,000 supporters packed into France's national arena to witness Tuesday's goalless draw. Lille have now sold more than 177,000 tickets for their three Group D games, justifying the decision to play in Paris, although Benfica can take some credit for that statistic.
It is believed that more than 40,000 of those present last night were supporters of the Eagles. Approximately 5,000 had travelled from Portugal, while the rest were expatriates, mainly from the Paris area, but also from other French towns and nearby countries with large Portuguese communities such as Luxembourg, Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands.
It made for a surreal atmosphere on the streets prior to kick-off, as hordes of Benfica fans - some conversing in French, others in Portuguese - descended on Saint-Denis. On virtually every corner salesmen seemed to be doing a roaring trade in Portuguese flags and Benfica scarves. Finding a stand selling Lille merchandise was a far harder task.
Inside the ground the stands were a swathe of red, the colour of both clubs. Thousands of red balloons were released as the game got under way in a carnival atmosphere, though it was not initially clear which side had the largest support. That became apparent within 30 seconds, however, when a surging run from Benfica midfield player Nélson was greeted with an almighty roar. The 'Benfica! Benfica!' chant which followed seconds later and returned at regular intervals through the evening will probably still be ringing in the ears of the Lille players.
Born in France
Benfica midfield player Petit had predicted that their supporters would "make it feel like a home game", and so it proved. Like so many Portuguese, Petit, who was born in Strasbourg, has strong links with France. In the 1960s thousands of people left Portugal - then under the oppressive Salazar regime - and took up residency in France. By 1975 France had become home for over 750,000 Portuguese and, though that number has diminished slightly since, the Paris region still houses around 500,000 Portuguese expatriates.
During the same period, Benfica, inspired by the brilliant Eusébio, were a dominant force in Europe, winning the European Champion Clubs' Cup in 1961 and 1962. The club's immense popularity saw them heralded as 'the team of Portugal', and, though performances have since dipped, they are still widely recognised as the people's club.
Many Portuguese immigrants have strived to maintain a link with the Lisbon club, who have 155,000 members and several 'Benfica houses' (supporter groups) around the world. French Ligue 2 club US Créteil Lusitanos, whose president Armand Lopes is a Benfica member, hopes to establish the first 'Benfica house' in Paris. He has some influential backers. On Monday, Benfica president Luis Filipe Vieira and Eusébio, who works as an ambassador for the club, attended a gala evening in Creteil to support the plans. Around 400 people attended.
The chances of Benfica returning to the Stade de France for the UEFA Champions League final in May appear slim. Despite the huge support they could not get the win they needed to lift them off the bottom of Group D, and their coach Ronald Koeman said: "It's a shame. The atmosphere was fantastic and it would have been nice to win for the fans."
Additional reporting by Hugo Pietra
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