Benfica, or Sport Lisboa e Benfica if you want their official name, are the most successful team in Portuguese footballing history. Although they’ve faced some competition on the domestic front from Porto and, to a lesser extent Sporting Lisbon (aka Sporting Clube de Portugal), at the time of writing, Benfica have 37 league titles to their name (to Porto’s 30). But here we’re focussing on Benfica’s European exploits and, specifically in the European Cup, or Champions League, as it has been known since 1992.
It’s fair to suggest that Benfica peaked rather early in the competition. They won the European Cup in 1961 and 1962 in the sixth and seventh renewals of the tournament. They were only the second team to win the competition (after Real Madrid won the first five on the bounce!) and they made it to three more finals in the 1960s, as well. There was something of a fallow period after that, but they picked up a bit as the 1990s approached.
In this article, we’ll take a look at the two occasions on which Benfica have been crowned European champions. We’ll also take a look at the five additional times they made the final (and lost) and we’ll also take a look back at some of the Portuguese side’s biggest disappointments in the tournament.
When Did Benfica Last Win the Champions League?
Benfica last won the European Cup (as it was known until being rebranded as the Champions League in 1992) way back in 1962 when they beat the mighty Real Madrid 5-3 in the final at the Olympisch Stadion in Amsterdam. Two of the greatest players of all time played on that day: Eusébio for Benfica and Hungarian Ferenc Puskás for Real. They both scored too. As we’ll detail below, Benfica were managed at the time by Hungarian coach and former player, Béla Guttmann, who had quite a life, that included surviving a Nazi labour camp during the Second World War.
Champions League Finals
Although Benfica undoubtedly peaked on the European stage in the 1960s, they had a mini-renaissance between 1988 and 1990 when they made the final twice in as many years. Okay, they might have lost them both (one on penalties), but it was the best they’d performed in Europe’s top tournament for two decades.
Here’s a rundown of all the European Cup finals Benfica have competed in (note they haven’t made it to the final since the tournament’s name was changed to the Champions League). Having lost five finals and won only two, Benfica have one of the worst success rates in European Cup finals (though Juventus are worse having won only two out of nine finals).
|1988||PSV Eindhoven||Lost||6-5 on penalties (0-0 after 90 minutes and extra time)|
|1968||Manchester United||Lost||4-1 (AET)|
Stage of Elimination
As we can see in the table below, Benfica have often stumbled relatively early in the European Cup/Champions League. They made it to the quarter final in the 2021/22 season, but the last time they made it to the semi final or beyond was 1990 (when they lost in the final). That said, for a side many would consider to be relative minnows on the European stage, reaching the final 17% of the time is undoubtedly an impressive feat.
|Stage||Number of Times||Percentage|
|Round of 16||1||2%|
|Qualifying Round 3||3||7%|
Note that the percentage in the table does not add up to 100% due to rounding. Also note that the information is correct ahead of the 2022/23 Champions League and that some rounds and the tournament format have changed over the years.
Times Benfica Won the Cup
We have to look back six decades to find the times when Benfica went all the way in the European Cup. Of course, two European titles is more than most teams in the game, and it puts them levels with Juventus, Chelsea and domestic rivals, Porto, amongst others.
1962: A Final to Savour
The 1962 final between the cup holders, Benfica, and five-time victors, Real Madrid, was the second-highest scoring of all time (after the 1960 final in which Real beat Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3). Playing for Benfica was the brilliant Portuguese forward Eusébio, while Real had the sharpshooting Hungarian Ferenc Puskás as their main man. Indeed, Puskás was in red-hot form and he banged in a hat-trick in Amsterdam whereas Eusébio could only manage one goal and that was from the penalty spot.
But additional goals from Benfica’s captain, José Águas, Domiciano Cavém and Mário Coluna meant Benfica retained the European Cup and Real had to wait another four years before they’d be crowned European champions for the sixth time. Five players finished as joint-top scorers in that year’s European Cup with seven goals and three (Puskas, Alfredo Di Stefano and Just Tejada) played for Real but it was the Portuguese who came out on top.
Benfica themselves had been scoring freely throughout the whole tournament and in total notched 22 in seven games. Eusebio got five and Águas six as they beat Austria Wien 6-2 on aggregate in the first round (as champions – see below – they had a bye through the preliminary round) and FC Nurnberg 7-3 in the quarters. In the semis they faced a very good Tottenham side that had done the double in 1961 but prevailed 4-3 on aggregate despite losing the second leg in London 2-1.
1961: Benfica Break Real’s European Stranglehold
Benfica’s first European Cup triumph came in 1961 when they beat Spain’s other glamour side, Barcelona, 3-2 at the interestingly named Wankdorf Stadium in Bern, Switzerland. As mentioned, coach Béla Guttmann, who was Jewish, had previously been detained by the Nazis in a forced labour camp near Budapest but he escaped in December 1944. Apparently, he was due to be transferred to Auschwitz, and others who were sent there never made it out.
Back to football though and this Benfica team, made up entirely of Portuguese players, surprised a few people by making it to the final. Barcelona saw it as a great opportunity to get a European Cup of their own after witnessing Real Madrid win the previous five. In fact, Barca had knocked Real out in the first round. But the Catalans didn’t have enough to overcome the well-organised and dynamic Benfica who came back from a goal down to win 3-2 and become the first side other than Real to win this new competition.
Benfica hammered Scottish side Hearts in the preliminary phase, winning both games easily to go through 5-1. The goals came even more readily in the next round as they brushed aside Hungarian outfit Ujpesti Dozsa 7-4, largely thanks to a 6-2 win on home soil. They notched seven again in the quarters, this time beating Danes Aarhus 3-1 and 4-1. Rapid Vienna awaited in the semis but they were no match for this young, attacking Benfica side and the Austrians lost 4-1 on aggregate.
Benfica’s attacking brilliance is highlighted by the fact that the above-mentioned Jose Aguas scored a massive 11 goals to be the leading scorer in that year’s European Cup. His colleague and namesake Jose Augusto was joint-second top scorer on six, whilst Santana was also among the tournament’s leading marksmen with four.
Benfica’s Worst Upsets
When it comes to upsets and disappointments, arguably Benfica’s three losses in European Cup finals (in 1963, 1965 and 1968) are hard to beat. It’s not that they were necessarily expected to win them all, it’s just that getting so close within such a relatively short period of time must have been agonising. Not least because had they won those three, they would almost have been keeping pace with the mighty Real Madrid, and who knows how the history of European football would have panned out if that had been the case? This Benfica side, spearheaded by Eusebio, who was winner of the Ballon d’Or in 1965 and came second in 1962 and 1966, really were special and it is a great shame they “only” won two European Cups.
When it comes to really bad performances, however, we need to look at the 1963/64 tournament. Okay, Benfica started okay, hammering Northern Irish side, Lisburn Distillery, 8-3 on aggregate in the preliminary round… though perhaps the warning signs were there as they only managed a 3-3 draw away from home. But in the First Round, they were drawn against Borussia Dortmund. A routine 2-1 home win set the second leg up nicely for the Portuguese, but then they fell to pieces and were battered 5-0 to go out 6-2 on aggregate. Given that they’d won the tournament in 1961 and 1962 and made it to the final in 1963 and again in 1965, to get knocked out in such dramatic fashion in the First Round in the 1963/64 was a real shock.
Fast-forwarding to more modern times, since the competition has been the Champions League, and Benfica have stumbled at the Third Qualifying Round on three occasions: in 2003/04 when they went down 4-1 on aggregate to Lazio (which is no disgrace); in 2004/05 when they lost 3-1 on aggregate to Anderlecht; and then in 2020/21 when they lost to POAK of Thessaloniki. But then they bounced back to make it to the quarters the following season, which rather typifies Benfica’s hit-and-miss results in the Champions League in recent times.