Man United new boy Victor Lindelof is yet more proof that proud Benfica continue to punch above their weight

It’s the summer of 2011 and Manchester United, the champions of England, have just played in a third European Cup final in four years.

At Manchester Airport, a 17-year old Swede called Victor Lindelof arrives ahead of his week-long trial at Stoke City.

“He was excellent and really stood out,” explains Craig Honeyman, the agent who took the defender together with an attacking midfielder called Linus Sjoberg, who was the higher profile of the two since he was already playing for Vasteras’ first team in the Swedish second division.

“Victor played a couple of games at right back for Stoke’s under 18s,” recalls Honeyman, whose sister company had already sent John Guidetti and Seb Larsson from Sweden to England with success. 

“Victor won all his headers, he wasn’t outmuscled and was physically immense and tactically sound. He didn’t show up as being brilliant technically but he was way above the defensive standard there. He showed personality as he didn’t know the players and yet he came across as a leader.

“It was also clear it wasn’t going to be a right back. Imagine Nemanja Vidic playing right back?

Victor looked more like a centre half or holding midfielder. He passed well, kept things simple and ate up ground with those long legs. He was similar physically to Nemanja Matic. Stoke were impressed and I hoped that he’d train with the first team in pre-season. I was optimistic that both would be signed for half a million.”

Stoke decided that they didn’t want to pay the £300,000 fee for Victor.

“Stoke got that one wrong,” says Honeyman. Now 22, Victor has just been sold for over 100 times that amount. Linus Sjoberg is playing in Sweden’s third tier.

The following summer, Lindelof joined Benfica’s B team.

“We try to anticipate the player’s future at the early stage of their development, not only internally with our own academy but outside via our extensive network of scouts,” Benfica’s CEO  Domingos Oliveira told me last season in Benfica’s boardroom.

“We’ll not buy a player at 26 or 27, but 18 or 19. We do this because we realised that to compete with the big clubs in Europe – and we’re a big club but not from a big country – we should develop a fourth stream to our business. Finding them while they’re cheaper allows us to sell them on as they’re moving towards the top.”

For a club in the south western fringes of Europe to scout a player in Sweden shows the extent of their scouting system.

No club in world football is better at developing and selling talents for top dollar than Benfica or their big rivals FC Porto. In November, I spent three days in Lisbon and was fortunate to spend a sizeable chunk of it with former legendary players Rui Costa, Nuno Gomes and the club’s CEO Oliveira.

I was interviewing them on a stage in Lisbon at a Web Summit and the talk was to be done in English in front of a live audience of over 1,000, numerous journalists and television cameras.

A few days before, I received a call inviting me for lunch in Benfica’s boardroom with the aforementioned. How could any football fan refuse that? How could any football journalist?

It was a chance for me to get to know the trio before the talk and Costa was a little nervous about speaking in English, the weaker of the four languages he speaks.

“I can play in a Champions League final with no nerves, but when I do this I get nervous,” he said. I gave him an outline of the subject areas we’d be discussing and then I spent an hour talking to them about how Benfica do business. A month later, Manchester United approached them about Lindelof. United had signed Cristiano Ronaldo, Anderson, Nani, Marcos Rojo and Bebe from Portugal in the previous 15 years, those five featuring the best and worst signings made by the club so far this century.

The following day, I met the trio again. Costa was nervous. I told him to calm down, but that’s easier said than done. Some people are cut out for public speaking, others for being among the best players in their position in the world.

The three of them explained how Benfica, who play in a league in a country of only 10 million people, challenge and compete with the Super Clubs – though in many ways, they are a super club. They boast a superb 60,000 capacity stadium, they were the best team in the world for a chunk of the 1960s, their average crowd well above 50,000 and they’re regulars in European finals – albeit not in the Champions League. They’re also the club where the biggest and richest go to spend their television millions on new players.

The talk went well, Benfica are rightly proud of what they do and they’re in far better shape than the financial mess of a decade ago. They’re smart: this is a club which sold David Luiz to Chelsea for €25 million plus Nemanja Matic. Then they sold Matic for €25 million…to Chelsea.

But there was still something irritating about Costa so I put it to him.

“You ruined a perfectly good three days in Florence in 1999, you and your mate Batistuta,” I said. And it was true. United were the European champions, the treble winners, when Fiorentina, led by Costa and Batistuta, outclassed them.

“2-0,” smiled Costa. “I apologise for nothing.”

United will hope that Lindelof excels as Costa did when he left Benfica and, because they’re proud of what they do, so will Benfica.