Can the ‘Arsenalistas’ win the Portuguese league?
“I have the intellectual and financial freedom to say what I want and what I think” Braga coach Abel Ferreira
Ibelieve that by 2021 we can be champions,” said Braga president Antonio Salvador at the club’s open day ahead of the new season. And after the way the team has started this campaign, some fans believe they won’t even have to wait that long.
Going into the October international break, Braga were joint-top of the table, one of only two unbeaten sides alongside Benfica, and joint-top scorers with Porto.
It is the latest chapter in a decadeand-a-half of exceptional progress since Salvador became president in 2003. Only four times in the last 14 seasons have the “Arsenalistas” finished outside the top four, and in that time they have won both domestic cups, competed commendably in the Champions League and reached the Europa League Final.
The club’s on-field progress is mirrored off the pitch in their magnificent stadium, which is carved out of a former quarry, and a youth academy that is starting to imitate Portugal’s biggest clubs in its ability to produce future stars. Xadas’ multi-million euro move to Monaco has been put on ice after the midfielder’s foot injury required surgery, but the 20-yearold is being allowed to leave because Francisco Trincao, who starred in Portugal’s Euro Under-19 Championship triumph this summer, is considered an even bigger talent.
Braga’s progress is all the more commendable considering the club’s modest fan base, with attendances at local rivals Vitoria Guimaraes putting crowds at the Quarry in the shade.
So how have they done it? Two facets explain the positive evolution.
First, Braga have proven astute operators in the transfer market. With regular European football on offer, the team is an attractive proposition for players who didn’t make it at Portugal’s top clubs. Among the current squad, Ricardo Horta (ex-Benfica) and Wilson Eduardo, Ricardo Esgaio and Joao Palhinha (ex-Sporting) are all thriving. Braga also make clever use of the rest of the domestic market, picking up players who have shone elsewhere in the Primeira Liga but who are – often inexplicably – overlooked by the big three, with free-scoring Dyego Sousa being the most obvious current example.
Also on the transfer front, Salvador deals closely with super-agent Jorge Mendes, which has allowed a series of first-rate Brazilians to make contributions over the years.
Secondly, Salvador has been a good judge of potential when it comes to appointing a coach. Jesualdo Ferreira, Jorge Jesus, Leonardo Jardim, Sergio Conceicao and Paulo Fonseca all impressed before going on to achieve even greater success and renown at major clubs at home and abroad.
And the latest incumbent, Abel Ferreira, looks like another elite Portuguese coach in the making.
One of the new school of extremely erudite and eloquent managers, the 39-year-old is bright, ambitious and
unafraid of speaking his mind. “I have the intellectual and financial freedom to say what I want and what I think,” says the former B-team coach at Sporting.
Elimination by Ukrainian side Zorya Luhansk in Europa League qualification is the biggest disappointment of his career to date, but rather than dwell on failure he uses the experience for the team’s benefit, revealing: “After every victory, I remind my players of Zorya.”
Abel can also gain comfort from precedence. In 2009, Braga were dumped out of the same competition at the same stage by Swedish team Elfsborg, but the absence of European football proved a blessing as they pushed Benfica to the last weekend of the season before finishing second.
Nevertheless, history is against Braga finishing top of the pile. Only twice has a club outside the traditional triumvirate won the league: Boavista in 2001 and Belenenses way back in 1946. In other words, the title has never been won by a club from outside the two major cities.
With Salvador at the helm, Abel in the dugout and a talented squad, Braga have given themselves a fighting chance of rewriting the record books.
second chance... Ricardo horta
Progress...president antonio salvador