In the 2000-2001 Portuguese Primeira Liga season, Boavista upset the apple cart by running away with the title. It was the first time, since 1945 that one of Portugal’s big three – Porto, Sporting, Benfica had not won the league. In fact, the big three’s dominance of the league has meant that in most years the top three positions were filled with these three great clubs. Only in recent years has Braga emerged as a title threat, indeed pushing Benfica all the way in the 2011 season before falling at the last hurdle. Now with Sporting Lisbon faltering in the league and Braga dropping points to lesser teams, a new contender has emerged in the unlikely form of Paços de Ferreira.
The lesser known Porto based club is sitting pretty in third spot in the league with less than nine games to go. With the title unlikely (Porto and Benfica have sewn up the top two spots and have pulled away creating a gap of 15 ponts between second and third), Paços de Ferreira’s focus is on maintaining third place and holding off the challenges of the chasing pack including Braga, Rio Ave and Maritimo. Having already beaten Braga home and away this season and secured vital wins against teams in the lower half of the division, Paços de Ferreira’s chances of maintaining their position look quite strong. With only three difficult games remaining out of nine (Porto and Sporting at Home, Maritimo away), the team knows that their destiny is within their own hands.
When Boavista won the league, they had legendary Bolivian striker Erwin Sánchez to thank who single-handedly fired them to the title. It’s the mark of most championship winning sides throughout history that a stand out player or group of players made it possible. What is remarkable about Paços de Ferreira is the lack of star names in their squad or stand out player. It’s a group effort with the entire team gunning for the same goal. Led by 39-year-old manager Paulo Fonseca, who only took over the club in May of last year and finds himself in his first season as a manager in the Primeira Liga, the club has built a reputation as a team that plays for each other. With long-term goalkeeper Cássio controlling the back line since 2008, with the help of defenders Tony and Ricardo, Paços have only conceded 18 goals this year, giving them the 3rd best defence in the league. With 7 of the 18 goals conceded against the top two, free scoring Benfica and Porto, this achievement is even more remarkable.
With a solid back line comes a more relaxed frontline, safe in the knowledge that they can afford to miss a chance or two as long as they convert one, as their defence will prevent a goal in the other end. Upfront 22-year-old Peruvian striker Paolo Hurtado is leading the goalscoring charts for the club with 7 goals but others are chipping in, with fellow strikers Vítor, Luiz Carlos, André Leão and Manuel José all with strikes to their names. Surprisingly, mostly because of their position in the table, the midfield has only contributed a single goal (curtousy of Paraguayan Javier Cohene) but this has not held them back. Fonseca knows that this is an issue and will be looking to address this during the next transfer window but for now he is happy with the balance in his squad. With 10 players in the first team squad under the age of 22, Fonseca has done a brilliant job of blending youth with more experienced heads and the results are there to see.
If Paços de Ferreira can maintain their current form, a place in Europe may be their main prize which would be a huge boost for the club. Having played in the Europa League in 2010, it will not be unknown territory but a welcome distraction from league duties for their supporters. Their home ground of the Mata Real may only hold just over 5,000 fans but they are packed in on a regular basis to cheer on their team of underdogs, regardless of the opposition, either domestic or foreign. But before they can contemplate Europe, Fonseca and his team know that they must secure the point in the league and their final position. Having not finished higher than 10th place in the Primera Liga and having spent many a season in the lower divisions, securing third place in the league will be regarded by the fans as a huge success and something to celebrate. Doing it at the expense of two of Portugal’s top teams – Braga and Sporting will make the victory all that much sweeter for the Paços de Ferreira’s faithful.