LIBERATING FOOTBALL TRAVEL

Europe calls for the Geese of Casa Pia

Lisbon unknowns aim for a debut on the European stage

Their history intertwined with Benfica, Casa Pia are now emerging from decades of obscurity

With a vital game ahead against fellow European hopefuls Portimonense, Lisbon unknowns Casa Pia have defied all expectations in the Primeira Liga this season. Playing in Portugal’s top flight for the first time in 83 years, the Geese have won in Braga and Guimarães, and beaten Boavista at their temporary home of the Estádio Nacional.

These shock wins pushed the century-old club into fifth place in the league table before the season broke for the World Cup. A similar performance in the second half of the campaign will qualify Casa Pia for the Conference League in 2023-24, and a first-ever appearance in Europe.

Having just taken on the 2022 Conference League champions, José Mourinho’s Roma, who fielded a full side, for a friendly in the Algarve, the Casapianos did not look out of their depth in a narrow 1-0 defeat. Now Filipe Martins’ side meet seventh-placed Portimonense on December 28 before facing mighty Porto on January 7.

So who are the Geese of Casa Pia? And why are they flying so high?

Estádio Pina Manique mural/Peterjon Cresswell

Born of a  charitable orphanage founded by Diogo Inácio de Pina Manique in the 1700s, Casa Pia were early pioneers in the Portuguese game. Players from Casa Pia were involved in the setting up of Sport Lisboa, joined in name and heritage with Benfica since 1908.

When another generation of students emerged two decades later, they created their own club rather than feed young players into Benfica’s. The two teams remained close, however – in their first major fixture in 1920, Casa Pia beat their former benefactors to win the Bronze Herculano Santos. The match was refereed by co-founder of Sport Lisboa and one-time Casa Pia student Cosme Damião, commonly acknowledged to be the most important figure in the early history of Benfica.

His fellow pupil and Sport Lisboa co-founder, Cándido de Oliveira, handed over to the Casa Pia institution as a nine-year-old orphan, was team captain of the new club. Under his guidance in their first year, the Casapianos won the Lisbon Championship, the season before a national Portuguese Cup overshadowed the city-focused trophy in importance.

Estádio Pina Manique/Peterjon Cresswell

Given the nickname of the Geese because of how the students looked when parading in their uniforms outside the historic monastery of Jerónimos, Os Gansos were prominent members of the local sporting community. When Benfica opened their new stadium, the Estádio das Amoreiras, in 1925, it was Casa Pia they chose for their curtain-raising opponents.

Yet within a few years, this old-school institution had been overtaken by the new professional clubs springing up around Lisbon and Portugal. Casa Pia took part in only one National Championship in these early days, the disastrous campaign of 1938-39, before their ground at Restelo in Belém was taken over for exhibition grounds. The site was then used by Belenenses. 

Casa Pia remained homeless until the construction of their own Estádio Pina Manique in 1954, named after founder of the original orphanage back in 1780. It stands on the fringes of Benfica, close to a modern-day motorway, relatively inaccessible by public transport. Here, a community club was gradually created, with facilities and training pitches for several youth teams.

Estádio Pina Manique mural/Peterjon Cresswell

Long in the doldrums of the local Lisbon leagues, the seniors rose from the fifth level to the fourth in the Portuguese football pyramid in 2008, then up to the third in 2012. As Casa Pia aimed for the Segunda, they came under the expert scrutiny of Tiago Lopes, at the time looking after the business interests of Sport Lisboa e Benfica in North America.

Before he was taken on by Portugal’s most successful club to expand the brand across the Atlantic, this Harvard business graduate had gained vital experience working with his close associate Carlos Queiroz on youth development at Manchester United under Sir Alex Ferguson. This in turn led to grassroots outreach projects in Portugal and India, and Lopes overseeing the Harrisburg City Islanders of Pennsylvania, a leading club in America’s second tier, the USL. 

Given the linked heritage of Casa Pia and Benfica, and Lopes’ many contacts in the States, it wasn’t long before he became involved in seeking an investor for the venerable Casapianos. He soon found one in Robert Platek. An American entrepreneur of Polish extraction, this Rutgers graduate earned his fortune in corporate finance but never lost his passion for football. 

Estádio Pina Manique/Peterjon Cresswell

Looking at the European game for new ventures, like so many US tycoons, Platek cherry-picked his investments based on their potential: SønderjyskE in Denmark, Spezia in Italy… and Casa Pia in Portugal.

In September 2020, their club having just survived a first season in the Segunda, the savvy new management headed by sporting director Diogo Boa Alma hired coach Filipe Martins. Then 42, the former left-back had spent most of his playing career at Lisbon’s lesser lights, his native Estrela Amadora, Oriental and Atlético Clube. Familiar with Casa Pia and this level of football, and given a reasonable budget, in his first days on the job Martins quickly spotted the young talent of Jota Silva, the striker who made his professional debut for Leixões against Casa Pia.

Signing the forward during the next transfer window, Martins led his new charges up the Segunda table to a creditable ninth place. Veteran keeper Ricardo Batista, once on Fulham’s books then loaned out to Wycombe Wanderers, was another main factor in this transformation, Martins rescuing the former Portuguese youth international from an unhappy spell at Gaz Metan Mediaș in Romania. With Jota’s goals and the best defensive record in the division by far, Casa Pia led Liga 2 for several late rounds of the 2021-22 campaign before gaining promotion as runners-up.

Covering the walls of the redeveloped Estádio Pina Manique, huge photos of the team celebrations show other key players, swift Nigerian striker Saviour Godwin, persuaded to leave Belgium for Casa Pia, and much-travelled defender Vasco Fernandes, a team-mate of Ricardo Batista’s in Portugal’s international youth set-up in the early 2000s.

Estádio Pina Manique mural/Peterjon Cresswell

When Vitória Guimarães offered serious money for Jota Silva before the 2022-23 season, Godwin stepped up to the plate at Casa Pia, his stellar form earning this previously overlooked forward a first Nigerian cap in September 2022. 

Also integral to Casa Pia’s surprisingly successful top-flight return after 83 years has been Japanese midfielder Takahiro Kunimoto, whose tireless work for top-flight clubs in South Korea earned him a transfer to Europe. Casa Pia’s astute recruitment policy meant that ‘Kuni’ opted for the modest Estádio Pina Manique instead of Germany, where so many of his compatriots now ply their trade.

Given their ground’s capacity of 2,500, Casa Pia had to move home matches in the Primeira Liga to the famous Estádio Nacional, otherwise used for cup finals and other major events. Steeped in Celtic mythology – it was here that the Hoops became the first Scottish club to win the European Cup in 1967 – this open bowl of a stadium surrounded by the greenery of Jamor lies west of Lisbon, closer to Casa Pia’s spiritual home of Belém. 

It would indeed be fitting that the Geese welcome their first European opponents here in 2023, more than a century after the Geese first took flight as footballing pioneers. 

Casa Pia transport/Peterjon Cresswell

To see Casa Pia play at the Estádio Nacional, take the Cascais train from Cais do Sodré in Lisbon to Cruz Quebrada. From there, cross the bridge over the water and walk up Travessa Pinto Correia. At the crossroads, pop into the Café O Maia, a little football-friendly bar run by a lovely old couple whose portrait covers one wall. Then veer left up Rua Sacadura Cabral, then Avenida Pierre de Coubertin, and the Estádio Nacional. Invariably, a Celtic fan will be making their pilgrimage that day, making the same 15-minute trek from Cruz Quebrada station.

To visit the Estádio Pina Manique, where you’ll find the Casa Pia club shop, look for the bus 729 stop among the many dotting the concourse by Colégio Militar/Luz metro station near Benfica’s Estádio da Luz. You need the one heading for Algés from the stop nearest the shopping mall. Estádio Pina Manique is about ten stops/15 minutes away, the bus also calling at Benfica train station. Alternatively, a taxi from either Colégio Militar/Luz metro or Benfica station should be quick and inexpensive. Walking there (or back) is out of the question, the stadium is set by a busy motorway.