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Breaking the big three of Portuguese Premeira

Continuing his series looking at the ‘One Hot Wonders’ of the footballing world, Simon McPolin this weeks turns his attention to the story of Boavista. A club which managed what few thought possible.

Next time an English Premier League fan complains to you about the lack of competition for silverware and the fact that so few dominate so many you should point them in the direction of the nearest list of Portuguese title winners.

The Primeira Liga turns seventy-eight this season, having been founded in 1934, and during those seventy-eight years it has produced some of the best players and teams the world has ever seen. However, as any football fan who knows their Cristiano Ronaldo from their Bébé will tell you, those seventy-eight years have been dominated by just three teams, the three “big” teams, Sporting Lisbon, Benfica and FC Porto.

Those three teams have held a monopoly over the Primeira Liga since day one. In fact, in the sixty-six years between the foundation of the league and the turn of the century they had won 99% of the league titles between them – a solitary loss in 1945/46 long forgotten by everyone except Belensenses fans. That loss came at a time when giant killing was a realistic possibility. The disparity between clubs in terms of money existed, but it didn’t have as big an impact as it does today and the vague possibility that a team might get by on a good crop of youth talent actually existed. To win a Primeira Liga title now, without the financial clout or reputation of the big three would take a miracle and a miracle is exactly what Boavista Futebol Clube provided.

Boavista, as they are more commonly known, were founded in 1903 (the same year as Hellas Verona) in the city of Porto, immediately entering the shadows of more famous and illustrious neighbours who had been founded ten years earlier. Their early league history is difficult to track. Though there are records of the eleven seasons they spent in the top tier between 1934 and 1969, the details of the years spent outside the top tier are very limited. A handful of promotions and a handful of relegations meant that Boavista were considered a second tier side when they returned to the Primeira Liga in 1969. They quickly set about consolidating their place in top flight and within six years they had added their first piece of silverware to the trophy cabinet, winning the 1975 Taça de Portugal. Between 1975 and 2000 they won a further four Taça’s and enjoyed two second place finishes in the Primeira Liga, but nothing could have prepared their fans for the 2000/01 season.

Jamie Pacheco

The man at the helm, that season, was former Porto, Sporting and Portuguese national team midfielder, Jaime Pacheco. Hired in 1998, at the tender age of 40, on the back of a spectacular third place finish with lowly Vitória Guimarães, he had set about taking Boavista to the heady heights of second in his first season in charge, giving the fans their first taste of Champions League football.

Looking back at the squad that started that campaign, it’s easy to see why Boavista enjoyed such success. A solid spine of players, most of whom went on to play for one of the big three and collect an impressive number of national team caps in the process. Keeping guard between the sticks was a goalkeeper that would one day become one of the most hated men in England, Ricardo, who, between 2001 and 2008 collected almost 80 caps and played at four international tournaments for Portugal. Sitting just in front of Ricardo was future Champions League winner and the man Jose Mourinho chose to partner Ricardo Carvalho in the centre of that most impressive of Porto defences, Pedro Emanuel. In the centre of midfield, Petit, a tough tackling, but supremely gifted leader who went on to play over 200 times for Benfica and notched up almost 60 caps for the national side. Up front were two journeymen Brazilians, Elpidio Silva and Duda, who between them contributed twenty goals to the cause and in doing so booked a place in Boavista fans’ hearts. However, there was one man who will forever be remembered as the driving force behind such an unlikely success, the cultured, 5 ft 8 inch, Bolivian midfielder Erwin Sánchez.

Sánchez was enjoying his second spell with the Panthers, his first coming between 1992 and 1997 – a time which saw him score 21 goals in just 94 league games and win the Taça de Portugal in 1997. Such success led to a high profile move to Benfica, the club who brought him to Portugal in 1990. His second stint with the Lisbon side didn’t live up to expectations and he soon found himself on his way back to the Estádio de Bessa. Sánchez settled back into life with Boavista as if he had never left and over the following six seasons added another 22 goals and 126 league appearances to his Boavista tally, including 9 in the championship winning campaign. To do his influence on Boavista justice is to point you in the direction of the Boavista Wikipedia page, which simply refers to Boavista’s most successful period in history as “The Sánchez Years”. Platini, the pet name given to him by his adoring fans, even had a short stint as manager of Os Axadrezados in 2004. He was replaced by Pacheco, whose foray into La Liga with Mallorca had ended after just five games and a solitary win.

The season started just as so many had before it, a couple of decent wins, a draw against a weaker team, a defeat to Braga and an unexpected victory at home to Benfica. The Benfica result aside, a fairly average start to the season. The average start would continue for the first ten games or so, Boavista hovering between 4th and 7th. However, the stand out aspect of the run of games was the fact that Boavista remained unbeaten, save for the Braga blip, and in game-week seventeen, with a routine 2-1 win away to relegation candidates Aves, they moved top, and that’s where they would stay for the remainder of the campaign.

They followed up the Aves win with a home win against the mighty Porto and suddenly people were starting to take notice of Pacheco’s side. Here was a team, with just one loss in the first half of the season, wins against Benfica, Porto and a draw against Sporting Lisbon. If they kept this form up they would be in with a shout of doing the unthinkable. Four games later and a second loss of the season, at the hands of Braga once again, and the naysayers might have been forgiven for thinking that the wheels might come off the bandwagon. They were sorely mistaken.

The second loss to Braga had a similar affect as the first, another lengthy unbeaten run, a run that only came to an end when the title had been confirmed. During the second half of the season they notched up another big three win at home to Sporting Lisbon and a scoreless draw against Benfica. With Porto coming on the final day of the season it was imperative that they won as many of the games against non-big-three sides as possible and save for the odd stumble, away from home, they did.

Looking through Boavista’s results, you can’t help but take a second look at their home form. They won sixteen of the seventeen home games they played, averaging 2.29 goals a game and conceding a paltry three goals, all three coming in games they won by heavy margins. Their away form wasn’t quite as impressive, just seven wins from seventeen games, but add seven wins to seven clean sheets and you have an answer as to why they got away with patchy away form. Over the course of the season they shipped just twenty-two goals and kept an impressive eighteen clean sheets in the process.

The title was confirmed with one game to go and somewhat fittingly it was confirmed with a win against the side Boavista had beaten to assume top spot seventeen games earlier, a 3-0 home win against already relegated Aves meant that the final day showdown against Porto was meaningless. In the event Porto ran out 4-0 winners. It was the first time Boavista had conceded more than two goals in one game all season long, but nothing could ruin their day. For the first time in fifty-five years Portugal had a champion that wasn’t considered one of the big three, but would it really be a One Hit Wonder?

Sadly, yes and quite emphatically so. The following season The Panthers came within five points of retaining their title, bettering their previous seasons defensive record in the process, but a newly resurgent Sporting Lisbon proved too strong for them. A year later, 2002/03, they finished the season in tenth. The one bright light of an otherwise miserable season was a Uefa Cup Semi Final appearance, Henrik Larsson’s Celtic taking their place in the Final. A tenth place finish would be least of their worries come 2008, when, despite finishing ninth in the Primeira Liga, Boavista were relegated as a result of the Apito Dourado scandal in Portuguese football. You would be forgiven for thinking that being found guilty of intimidating referees would be as bad as it might get for Os Axadrezados, but you would be wrong. In 2009, despite initially escaping relegation from the Liga de Honra, Boavista were relegated to the third tier of Portuguese football as a result of financial irregularities.

In the space of eight years Boavista went from the dream team of Portugal to the seventh best side in the Third Division. The dream was over for the Estádio do Bessa faithful, but the legacy lives on. It’s a stretch, but they might still be credited with the resurgence of the Portuguese game, the big three getting the wake up call they needed and going on to claim three European trophies over the course of the following ten years.

Here’s to One Hit Wonders, the memories they provide and the legacies they create.

Simon is one half of the team behind the Debatable Decisions website and can be found on twitter @Deb_Decisions.

Edited by Staff Editor
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