Can the ‘Arse­nal­is­tas’ win the Por­tuguese league?

World Soccer - - Headliners - Tom Kun­dert

“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

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