Pioneers: How football took hold in Portugal

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On the night of Sunday 10 July 2016 in Paris, Portugal slammed the door shut on France’s talented attack for 120 minutes despite losing its talismanic leader Cristiano Ronaldo early on. It wasn’t a vintage final – major tournament finals rarely are in the modern era – but in those dying seconds of the match substitute Eder swung his long legs and lashed a shot from outside the box past the despairing Hugo Lloris in the French goal.

Goooooool de Portugal!”

The Stade de France was stunned. France won the European Championships at home in 1984 and the World Cup in 1998. This was their time, and Eder – once a regular benchwarmer at Swansea City – had rudely snatched it from them.

This Sunday night at the Stade de France was the pinnacle of a relationship Portugal had enjoyed with football since 1875. As was so often the case in football’s nascent years, it was British sailors with a ball that – quite literally – kicked things off…

Portugal’s first football match

Sports historian Ricardo Serrado has written two volumes titled História do Futebol Português (The History of Portuguese Football), so I caught up with him to learn more about the roots of football in Portugal.

The first record of any kind of association football on Portuguese territory comes from Largo da Acharda, a park in the town of Camacha, Madeira. As an island with close links to England, it is probably not surprising that this should be where English sailors and expats got together with some locals and had what was probably no more than an informal kickabout.

All the information we have about that game comes from Englishman Harry Hinton, an 18-year-old whose family had a quinta (country residence) in Camacha. He bought a ball with him from England, where he’d been studying. It was made of an animal bladder and Hinton records that the ball got damaged several times.

There is a monument to Hinton and his pioneering match in Camacha and, a century and a half on, it is perhaps fitting that Madeira can boast one of its own – Cristiano Ronaldo – as arguably Portugal’s greatest ever player.

Camacha’s monument to the first football match on Portuguese soil [Credit: Muffinn via Creative Commons]

Football hits the mainland

It was a further 13 years after Hinton’s informal Madeiran matches that the sport is recorded on mainland Portugal.

The first game was in October 1888, in Cascais, Lisbon, developed by the aristocratic Pinto Basto family. Guilherme Pinto Basto was the key driver. Guilherme´s brothers Eduardo and Frederico were studying in England and they brought a football ball back with them.

“Like in other countries, football and other sports were practiced first by the aristocrats and bourgeoisie,” Serrado says.

In January 1889, another match took place in Campo Pequeno, Lisbon, that Serrado says we can consider as the first ‘formal match’ in Portuguese history. What was different about this match is that it had markings, goalposts, followed association rules and lasted 90 minutes.

“The match was disputed by a Portuguese team against an English one constituted by players that worked in the installation of a submarine cable in Carcavelos and the Graham [Port manufacturer] house, among others,” Serrado recounts. “The Portuguese team won 2-1.”

In 1890, Britain and Portugal came to loggerheads over their respective colonial ambitions in Africa, known as the British Ultimatum. It created tension between Brits in Portugal and the locals that lasted decades. The British Carcavelos team went unbeaten from 1894 until 1907.

When in 1907 Sport Lisboa beat Carcavelos 2-1 for the Lisbon Championship, the public went wild.

By then, matches in Lisbon were attended by crowds of more than 3,000 people.

Serrado adds; “There are some indications that the match between Sport Lisboa and Carcavelos was viewed by 8,000 people, principally because of two factors: 1) this game pitted the best Portuguese team against the best team in all Lisbon and, subsequently, in the whole country – the unbeatable ‘masters’ of Carcavelos: 2) because of that that, this match was considered a game between Portugal and England. An opportunity for Portugal to take revenge from the Ultimatum of 1890.”

Indeed, due to the strained relationship with Britain, some in Portugal called for their countrymen to give up this English jogo do coiçe (kick game).

“Nevertheless, if this happened it was for a short time and with low impact, because the game grew after 1890 and by 1908 it was the main sport in Lisbon, by far,” Serrano explains.

SL Benfica fans head to Lisbon’s Estádio da Luz

Portugal’s first football club

In our Pioneers series, we’ve been looking at the first football clubs in each country. There is some debate over who was the first dedicated football club in Portugal. According to Serrado, the very first sports club in Portugal is the Real Ginásio Club (Royal Gymnastic Club – known as Ginásio Clube Português since the fall of the monarchy in 1910), which was formed in 1875 and commenced playing football in 1889.

“Between 1890 and 1894 dozens of clubs were formed in Lisbon but the most powerful football club was the Club Lisbonense, that no longer exists. However, between 1890 and 1894 was the most popular football team in the country,” Serrado adds.

In 1893, a familiar name emerged in the north – Football Club Porto. This was an English team with a few Portuguese players. It only existed for a few months. The current FC Porto was formed in 1906. The other two in Portugal’s ‘big three’– Sporting Clube de Portugal and Sport Lisboa e Benfica – were also founded in the middle of this first decade of the 20th century, the latter from a merger of the Sport Lisboa club and Grupo Sport Benfica in 1908. Sport Lisboa had been playing since 1904.

One of the oldest existing clubs still playing in the top leagues is Associação Académica de Coimbra. Although founded in 1887, the sports academy didn’t start playing football until comparatively late in 1912.

This bench in Belém, Lisbon, commemorates the foundation of Belenenses, Portuguese champions in 1946

Competitive football takes off in Portugal

1889 really was the kick-start year for Portuguese football. It is from here the country gets the football bug and the game really took off, especially in Lisbon, where a season of sorts ran between local teams from September to April. In Porto, there were only two teams in the early days – the above-mentioned FC Porto and Oporto Cricket Club.

By 1894, Portugal had a cup competition – the Cup d’el Rey, between the best teams from cities around the country. In that first year, that meant just Club Lisbonense from the capital and FC Porto took part. The cup competition still exists as the Taça de Portugal.

“In reality, that game was considered by all as a Lisbon versus Porto – the first and second cities of Portugal, respectively,” Serrado tells me.

At the turn of the twentieth century, football in Portugal began to formalise. The Associação de Futebol de Lisboa (Lisbon Football Association) was created in 1910, followed by local associations in Portalegre and Porto. Finally, in 1914, the Federação Portuguesa de Futebol (Portuguese Football Federation) was formed.

Then the Great War interrupted matters. Portugal managed to remain neutral until 1916 before coming in on the side of the Allies.

By 1934, Portugal had its own championship, which originally had an elimination format. Portugal was a poor country by European standards at this time, so did not enjoy the benefits of an extensive transport network, as existed in England, for example. So, power was concentrated in the capital and Porto, and not dispersed across the land as in England, Germany, Italy or Spain.

To date, the Portuguese championship has been dominated by SL Benfica, Sporting and FC Porto, with just two other sides winning the title – Belenenses of Belém in 1946 and Boavista of Porto in 2001.

Portugal has developed some wonderful players over the decades and, as Serrado points out, many of these have been on the wing: Ronaldo, Figo, Rui Costa, Quaresma, Nani, Simão Sabrosa, Futre and others.

The attractive style for which Portugal’s ‘Golden Generation’ of the early 2000s were known didn’t culminate in victory in the country’s home Euros in 2004, losing in the final to a negative Greek team, but – ironically – it was the Greek-style defensive approach that led A Seleção to glory in 2016.

And to think, it all started with Harry Hinton’s kickabout in Camacha…


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  1. Benfica was founded in 1904, not 06-08. 1908 is just when in incorporated Grupo Sport Benfica.

    “On 28 February 1904, a group of former students from the Real Casa Pia de Lisboa and members of Associação do Bem met at the back of Farmácia Franco on Rua de Belém with the goal of forming a social and cultural football club, which would be called Sport Lisboa.”

    • Thanks, 1908 is the date of the merger that created the current SL Benfica, so I have amended the piece to clarify that.

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