Sir Bobby Robson – a Portuguese love affair

It has been thirty years since Bobby Robson became manager of Sporting Clube de Portugal. This appointment transformed football and heralded the start of a love affair that resonates to this day.

It was July 1992 when Robson arrived in Lisbon, two years after England (with Bobby Robson as their manager) had experienced the pain of a World Cup semi-final defeat. Sporting Clube de Portugal (Sporting Lisbon) hadn’t won the league title for ten years, yet under Robson’s leadership, they soon thrived, finishing third in his first season and qualifying for the UEFA Cup. All seemed to be going well, with Robson loving his life in Portugal, ably assisted as he was by a young Portuguese translator named José Mourinho.

Yet despite his success on the pitch, behind the scenes, there were problems. Robson had a strained relationship with the chairman, who had a tendency to sign players his manager did not want. In December 1993, with Sporting Clube at the top of the league, Robson was sacked. The absurdity of that decision soon became apparent. Within five weeks, Robson was appointed manager of Futebol Clube do Porto (FC Porto), taking with him the influential Mourinho– this time as his coaching assistant. It was to be one of Robson’s most successful periods in football.

In his two seasons with FC Porto, Robson won fifty-five league games, losing just three. So dominant was the team, local fans nicknamed him ‘Bobby Five-O’ in reference to winning so many games by such an emphatic scoreline. Under Robson’s management, FC Porto won the Primeira Divisão twice and also the Taça de Portugal. They reached the semi-finals of the Champions League, Europe’s elite tournament. An amazing achievement made all the more remarkable as Robson was battling cancer.

It wasn’t just on the pitch that Robson won fans over, but rather the way he embraced life in Portugal. It’s intriguing to watch his press conferences on YouTube. While never fluent, he made an effort to speak Portuguese, helping to endear him to the club’s fans and the nation. The affection that Porto and Portugal had for Bobby Robson was reciprocated. Speaking exclusively to Tomorrow magazine, his son, Mark Robson said. “Mom and Dad loved Portugal, the people, the food, the culture, and were always keen to give something back.” Such was his success at Porto, Robson moved to Barcelona before finally returning to his roots in the northeast of England, to take up his final post as manager of Newcastle United.

Mark Robson

Players, fellow managers, and supporters all speak of a great football manager, yet perhaps more importantly, of a remarkable man. Sir Alex Ferguson said of Sir Bobby (he was knighted in 2002), “It was one of the privileges of my life to have met him….there is not a person I would put an inch above Bobby Robson. He was a wonderful individual and a great friend.”

Here in the Algarve, the Sir Bobby Robson Celebrity Golf Classic takes place every year. Attracting top stars like Alan Shearer and Kenny Dalglish, it raises much-needed funds for the Refúgio Aboim Ascensão, a homeless children’s charity in Faro. It is the only charity personally supported through fundraising activity by the Robson family itself.

The tournament was started by Sir Bobby in 2004 and over 1 million euros have been raised to help the charity continue the great work they do for homeless babies and children under age six who have been abandoned, and in some cases, abused. Supporting this refuge was the opportunity that Sir Bobby and his wife, Lady Elsie, always wanted in order to help repay the people of Portugal for their kindness. When talking later in life about his own legacy and the good causes he supported, Sir Bobby said, “Whilst I will be remembered for my life through football, the legacy I’d prefer to be remembered by is that I raised money which, in time, will save lives.”

Shola Ameobi
Alan Shearer

In 2008, when facing cancer for the fifth, and what he knew to be the final time, Sir Bobby and Lady Elsie launched the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation. It has since raised over Åí16 million to find more effective ways to detect and treat cancer. Work funded by the Foundation plays a significant role in the international fight against the disease – funding cutting-edge cancer treatment and innovative cancer support services, including the clinical trials of new drugs. Sir Bobby described the charity as his “last and greatest team.”

In 2016, a statue of Sir Bobby was commissioned and placed overlooking the 18th green at Pestana Vila Sol, where the Celebrity Golf Classic is held. In June 2019, Loulé council named a street ‘Rua Sir Bobby Robson’ in recognition of his footballing achievements and support for good causes.

With his outstanding football career, philanthropy, and good character, Sir Bobby Robson left a lasting legacy: It is telling how many people remember him as ‘more than a football manager’ and rather someone who was a true gentleman and an inspiration both on and off the football pitch. Jos. Mourinho appreciated all the help Sir Bobby gave him in starting his own illustrious career. As recently as 2018, Mourinho said, “I remember him every day and I tell stories about him. We laugh with the stories. We remember him in the right way,” before poignantly adding, “a person only dies when the last person that loves them dies.” By this measure and indeed any other, Sir Bobby Robson and his legacy will burn brightly for many years to come.

Sir Bobby Robson passed away in July 2009, aged seventy-six. Donations to the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation and the Refúgio Aboim Ascensão, can be made at the websites below. The next Sir Bobby Robson Celebrity Golf Classic takes place in June 2023.


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