Os Belenenses: Redemption and Rebirth

At the end of the 2017/18 Primeira Liga season, a historic club was changed forever. Os Belenenses, founded in 1919 and steeped in tradition (one of only two clubs outside of the ‘Big 3’ to have won the Primeira Liga) split from the SAD (Sociedade Anónima Deportiva) following a long-running and bitter feud. As a result of the split, Os Belenenses were forced to start again from the sixth tier of Portuguese football, all the while maintaining their name, club crest, stadium and core fanbase. The ‘new’ club, Belenenses SAD, retained a place in the Primeira Liga and kept both the first team and U23 squad.

I spoke with Diogo Barotte for this piece, a lifelong Os Belenenses supporter and the owner of the @OPastel Twitter account, a page dedicated to his beloved club, about his life as a Os Belenenses supporter and how the club has changed over time. 

“Being a Belenenses’ fan in recent years was not easy so in 2018, I was completely disconnected from the professional football of the Club, supporting only the other sports because I didn’t see myself in the way that the SAD managed the football. Therefore, it was not a surprise that Clube and SAD followed different paths (and if they had continued together, I think it was a death sentence for us).”

Os Belenenses had been freed from the shackles of the SAD, but at an extreme cost, the loss of top flight football. Similarly to the MK Dons/AFC Wimbledon story in England, Os Belenenses dusted themselves off and began their comeback.

The 2018/19 campaign saw Os Belenenses compete in the AF Lisboa 1ª Divisão Série 2. A far cry from the previous campaign, where they had pitted themselves agains the likes of FC Porto, Sporting CP and SL Benfica, but for Os Belenenses fans they aren’t thinking about the past, they’re focused on making new history. The first day of the season brought Desportivo P. Naçoes to the Restelo, a 4-0 win for Os Azuis marked a historic day for the club, the first page in a new chapter for the club.

Photo courtesy of Os Belenenses

Belenenses finished the season with 31 (30 league + AP. Campeão match) games played, they won 28 games, drawn two and lost just one, scoring 128 goals and conceding just 17 in the process. The last match of the campaign came against Séries 1 champions Bocal. The Belém side ran out 3-2 winners after extra-time on a day where the atmosphere matched that of a top flight game. Nuno Oliveira’s men had achieved their first objective, both the title and promotion were secured. The first rung on the latter to the Primeira Liga had been climbed.

The following season (2019/20) was also a success, despite ending in a slightly different fashion. The leagues were suspended indefinitely and subsequently cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, up until the point of the seasons cancellation, Os Belenenses had played 20 matches, won 18, drawn zero and lost just two. They sat atop of AF Lisboa 2ª Divisão Série 2 and then on the 27th of April, the FPF (Portuguese football federation) confirmed the news, Os Belenenses were granted promotion, making it two promotions in two years and elevating them into the fourth tier of Portuguese football.

Photo courtesy of Diogo Barotte

I asked Diogo what it felt like supporting Os Belenenses through these strange times, away from the glamour of the top flight,

“Everything changed when the football team returned to the control of the Club. I again identified myself with the values of the team mainly formed with players who were also trained at Belenenses and recognize the importance of the jersey they were wearing. See fans of all ages returning to the Restelo. See traditions like the “15 minutos à Belenenses” (when 15 minutes from the end, fans play our anthem on a bagpipe, recovering a tradition from the club’s early history when a horn signalled that moment). The Club is treating its legends with affection again, for example, with former players such as Vicente Lucas (the biggest living symbol and brother of Matateu), or José Mário and Mladenov (Portuguese Cup winners in 1989) present at the games. It was like giving a new life to Belenenses, 100 years after its foundation, in a spirit closer to that of our founders.”

For Diogo and the Os Belenenses supporters, they feel that they have got their club back. Although it meant dropping to the sixth tier and restarting again as a club, Diogo seems happier with Os Belenenses in its current state than when it was competing in the Primeira Liga. He kindly shared with me some of the best moments from the last two seasons,

“We live for magical moments like the presentation game against Atlético, an old rival, now united in the fight against SAD. A match in Mem Martins in which more than 500 fans spent the entire game in torrential rain without ever stopping supporting the team. The “match of the year” with Estrela da Amadora in which more than eight thousand people got together to watch a game of the district while at the same time B SAD – Vitória de Guimarães had less than three thousand specrators. The centenary games against Salgueiros (also a historic team) and Real Madrid, or the match against Vila Franca do Rosário (a half-hour drive from Lisbon) where we organized excursions, joining fans from other parts of the country.”

Photo courtesy of Diogo Barotte

“With this, we won again the respect of the fans of other Portuguese clubs that admire our courage in making a difficult decision. Internationally, Belenenses also gained prominence and it is very good to feel that we are part of something different and that we are fighting for our identity and history. Also, the other teams of our division feel proud play against Os Belenenses (where we go they tell us that they have never saw that field with so many people). Because of Os Belenenses, many people started to pay attention to the district divisions, which have evolved a lot in the last years.” 

The passion can be felt in Diogo’s words and he echoes the same sentiments of Os Beleneneses supporters all over the world, the pride and the joy of connecting with their club is evident when you look at the gate receipts for each match. Thousands of people flock to the Restelo, even with the club so low down in the Portuguese footballing pyramid, their attendances dwarf those in the LigaPro and even in some Primeira Liga matches, that tells you all you need to know about the Belenenses supporters and their love for the club.

Os Azuis do Belém’s journey won’t always be straight forward, as they move up the leagues the standards will obviously improve and promotion will be harder to achieve, but one thing is for sure, the club have once again found their heart and soul and that stands them in good stead for the remainder of their journey.

I’ll finish this article with Diogo’s own words, because I think they succinctly encapsulate what these last few years have meant to him, and to Belenenses.

“In short, I fell in love with football again… It is good to remember what real football is, the one we all love!”

By Aaron Barton for Próxima Jornada

Thank you to Diogo Barotte for his words and images.

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