This is not so much a story about the game of football as it is a story of the people who religiously follow it. In particular of three groups, culturally and geographically a world away, brought together by the quest for glory on the European stage. 

March 4th, 1992: Lisbon. The No Name Boys make their first appearance at Benfica in the south corner of the Estadio da Luz and the claque scene in Portugal gains its newest group. Formed out of disagreements with the original Benfica claque group Diabos Vermelhos (Red Devils), the No Name Boys immediately made their mark. Distancing themselves from the typical “Ultras” movement originating from Italy, they created a new and unique style of support in Portugal based on anonymity. Unlike other groups there, they are shrouded in secrecy with no known leader, website or open supporters’ group.

Roughly 3,000 kilometres away in Croatia a very different story was unfolding for the eternal rivals of ultras groups from Dinamo Zagreb and Hajduk Split. The Croatian war of independence was in its first year after the collapse of Yugoslavia in 1991. The war is often said to have originated from a pitch riot in Zagreb between Dinamo Zagreb’s ultras, the Bad Blue Boys, and Red Star Belgrade’s ultras, The Delije: something the Bad Blue Boys are very proud of. Hajduk Split’s ultras, Torcida Split (whose name originates from the Brazilian and Portuguese words for supporters), were also struggling as their country was plunged into a bloody war. Due to the Portuguese name “Torcida” the No Name Boys raised a banner that spelled “FREEDOM FOR CROATIA” at one of their league games, beginning one of the strongest alliances of ultras in Europe.

 Freedom for Croatia banner raised in Benfica’s Estadio da Luz, 1991.

Freedom for Croatia banner raised in Benfica’s Estadio da Luz, 1991.

Fast forward to 1994 and the alliance, through tragedy, grew even stronger. In September 1994 Benfica and Hajduk Split were due to play each other in the Champions League. The No Name Boys, despite travel warnings due to the on-going war, made the 3,000km drive to Split. Not only did they gain the respect of the Torcida but also their admiration. Not many away fans attended games in the former Yugoslavia during the war and for a group of supporters to throw caution to the wind was met with positivity from the Croatians. Unfortunately, on the drive back to Portugal, three No Name Boys – Jorge “Gullit” Maurício, Ana Rita Fernandes and Laurentino “Tino” Soares ‒ died in a car accident in Merida, Spain. Gullit played a large role in the formation of the No Name Boys and his loss was felt by all that associated themselves with the group. The Torcida were also heavily affected by the deaths and for the return leg placed a floral wreath in front of the No Name Boys in the Estadio da Luz, and thus the alliance turned to a friendship, a legacy which is still felt today.

In the 25 years since that tragedy the No Name Boys and the Torcida have regularly attended each other’s fixtures. Torcida fans and flags can often been seen at Benfica home games and ‘No Name Boys’ is often seen in the Stadion Poljud. It is in their European fixtures, however, that the friendship is strongest with both sets of fans supporting and travelling to each other’s away fixtures across the continent. When Benfica visited Manchester United accompanied by Torcida in 2011 they held up a banner which read “do you remember 1/27/1980? Hajduk 6-0 Man Utd” in reference to their friends’ historic triumph over the English giants. Similar instances have occurred across the continent in Austria, Spain and Germany.

Which brings us to now, March 14th, 2019. Twenty-five years after the formation of the alliance, Torcida’s arch rivals, The Bad Blue Boys of Dinamo Zagreb, are in Lisbon to play Benfica in the last 16 of the Europa League. Suddenly, a game between a team from Lisbon and Zagreb has become a derby; an eternal derby. This wasn’t a fixture that the Torcida could miss and according to reports almost 200 travelled from Split to support Benfica against Dinamo. “This is as much our derby as it is theirs” said one Benfica fan with the atmosphere inside the Estadio da Luz on matchday was palpable.

 Pre-match at Benfica vs. Dinamo Zagreb, March 14, 2019.

Pre-match at Benfica vs. Dinamo Zagreb, March 14, 2019.

As the game kicked off many Torcida flags could be seen from the away end, compelling the visiting Bad Blue Boys into various chants against the No Name Boys and Torcida. The police presence around them was higher than usual; this wasn’t just any old Europa League fixture. The away end rocked for the entire 120 minutes despite Dinamo losing 3-0. The passion and ferocity of both sets of fans was channelled through their 25-year connection to each other, culminating in a spectacle of fan culture rarely seen.

On the way out of the Estadio da Luz, the Bad Blue Boys felt like not only had they lost to Benfica but also to Hajduk and scuttled off to drown their sorrows in the cervejarias of Lisbon. Spending time with some of the Bad Blue Boys was a reminder of the power of football. At the end of the day, it is simply 11 people kicking a ball into a net, but to the ultras it is the shared experience of rivalry, tragedy, war and friendship. Lisbon, Zagreb and Split will always have this unique relationship. They are bound to each other, for better or for worse.