In the top ten leagues of European football (ranked by the UEFA Coefficients system), there have been a total of 173 different champions. The most have come from The Netherlands and Germany, with 29 separate clubs lifting each title, while 28 account for France, and 24 from England.
A total of 16 have won the league in Italy, with 15 in Austria, 12 in Russia, 11 in Scotland and nine in Spain. But of those 173 clubs that have tasted title success, only five have come from Portugal during the 88-year history of the Primeira Liga.
In fact, of all the recognised European Football leagues formed prior to 1991 (and the fall of the USSR), Portugal has the fewest winners – with some fifty top-flight European divisions having a larger variety of Champions.
This stranglehold is orchestrated by Benfica with 37 titles, Porto with 29 and Sporting Club de Portugal – who are the current Primeira title holders – with 19.
From what could first be characterised as a phase of supremacy has evolved into total domination – with the first side to buck the trend coming way back at the eclipse of the second World War.
But our story actually starts at the end of the First World War in the country’s capital, as Clube de Futebol Os Belenenses came into existence on the banks of the Tagus River in 1919, with Benfica and Sporting players wanting to represent their Lisbon neighbourhood of Belém.
This pedigree allowed O Belém to stitch together a talented squad and in 1926 they reached the Campeonato (now Taça de Portugal) Final, before winning the showpiece match in ’27, ‘29 and ‘33. This early dominance led to the big three – but not the all-conquering trio we know today.
Benfica and Sporting were joined at the top table by Belenenses, who routinely challenged for the title in the 30s and 40s while lifting another cup in ’42 – meaning their league title success in 1946 wasn’t the shock it might seem now, and more the inevitably of a growing club here to challenge the status quo.
Augusto Silva led the revolution; a former Belém player who spent his entire career with the Lisbon club, as well as earning a then-record 21 caps for the Portuguese national side.
He had enjoyed two spells in the dugout during the 30s and 40s before returning at the end of the War to lead Belenenses into their Annus Mirabilis.
Os Belenenses became the first Portuguese team outside of the Big Three to win the league title in 1946.
72 years later, they were sent to the amateur division as Belenenses-SAD remained in the Primeira Liga following an ugly divorce. pic.twitter.com/dItkaItQHy
— Breaking The Lines (@BTLvid) February 28, 2022
Silva built his side on defensive solidity first and foremost; conceding just 24 goals in 22 games – by far and away the fewest in the division and some 50 fewer than Elvas (more on them later) and Académica.
Playing in a 2-3-5 shape, Manuel Capela kept goal with Oliveira Vasco and Antonio Feliciano ahead of him – forming the ‘Belém Towers’ in reference to the district’s famous monument.
Artur Quaresma and Rafael Correia scored the goals further up the field, but it was Manuel Andrade who stole the headlines; netting 19 goals in just 14 games to become the jewel of Silva’s crown at just 18-years-old.
While they opened their campaign with a 1-1 draw against Sporting, they hit Boavista and Académica for six and seven in their next two games and took top spot on matchday four with a 1-0 win at Oliveirense.
They continued to smash fours and fives past sides until two defeats in three to Benfica and Olhanense knocked them off top spot – only for Belém to go on an eleven-game winning run, including wins over Sporting, Boavista and a 10-0 hammering of Oliveirense.
They reclaimed top spot with a 1-0 victory against Benfica soon after, before beating Porto by the same scoreline a week later and hammering six past Olhanense to put them on the brink of greatness. Only Elvas stood in their way of making history – but it wasn’t as simple as that.
Elvas were a Benfica subsidiary, meaning The Reds sent legendary coach Valadas to the minnows to train the side for over two weeks in anticipation of the game – bearing fruit almost instantly, as Belenenses fell behind in the opening minutes.
Champions often find a way to win, though, and so it proved; goals through Andrade and Rafael turned the game around and delivered the club’s one and only title. The fans flooded the pitch and then the Capital – painting Lisbon blue and white, lining the streets and partying like never before – and never again.
The team would eventually break up and while they stayed competitive enough to form the big four, by 1967 they had slumped down to 11th, while the other three lifted a combined 54 major in the time Os Pastéis lifted just one domestic trophy.
They were bypassed by the better sides who began to break away and were duly outmuscled by those further down the chain. Then came their denouement – relegation to the second tier in 1982 for the first time in their 73-year history, as Portugal lost one of its original giants.
The club initially struggled to get a foothold back in the division, suffering two further relegations before finally settling at the end of the 1990s.
But while everyone was celebrating Y2K and partying into the new millennium, another side were gearing up to make it onto European football’s most exclusive guest list.
Boavista were founded in 1903 as ‘The Boavista Footballers’ by two English brothers, birthing the ‘second club’ of Porto – following the city’s namesake ten years earlier. In 1910 – with many of the personnel now Portuguese – they adopted the current name, and went on to win the regional league in 1914.
But as Belenenses competed in the maiden campaign of the Primeira, The Panthers had to earn their right via promotion – setting the tone for an initially uneasy period.
They were up, and down and just as Frank Sinatra released his rendition of ‘That’s Life’ – they appeared to be over and out, sinking into the third division for the first time in their history.
But this appeared to rally them, as Boavistac embarked on the most successful period seen since the club’s infancy.
They won back-to-back promotions in ‘68 and ‘69 before taking home their first ever Taça de Portugal in 1975 – defeating Benfica 2-1 in the final with João Alves netting the decisive goal.
Alves – a skillful and intelligent attacking midfielder, easily recognised by his long hair and gloves – became the centrepiece of the side, carrying them to 2nd place in 1976 with 15 league goals and another domestic cup.
The Portuguese maestro moved on at the end of the season before joining Benfica in 1978, while a former Reds legend pitched up at the Éstadio do Bessa in the shape of Englishman Jimmy Hagan.
The Sunderland-born gaffer lifted four major honours with Benfica in just three seasons before moving on to Sporting and then Boa – lifting another Taça de Portugal in ‘79 over the Lions.
The cup had become a love affair for the club; a source of joy amongst the faithful and something to keep them ticking over until the glory days arrived.
More pots came in ’92 and ’97 to complete an historic quintuple in the space of just 22 years – with Nuno Gomes netting and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink featuring in ‘97s pulsating 3-2 victory over Benfica.
All this success – married with 6th, 4th and 2nd place finishes – meant that what came next perhaps wasn’t the biggest shock – much like O Bélem’s title assault over half a century earlier, as they strengthened their squad accordingly to truly challenge the triopoly.
In came forwards Elpídio Silva and Duda to top score for the title challengers, midfield reinforcements Pedro Santos and Filipe Gouveia as well as Rui Óscar and Frechaut to freshen up their rearguard.
After being sacked by Belenenses-SAD earlier in the season, Petit returned for his fourth spell at Boavista — his second as a manager — and has impressed with a balanced style of play.@ZachLowy and @JosePedroPais discuss Petit's impact at the Estádio do Bessa. pic.twitter.com/DJoWBv7X8i
— Breaking The Lines (@BTLvid) January 13, 2022
But most important of all was the acquisition of Armando Gonçalves Teixeira – a French-born central midfielder affectionately known as ‘Petit’ for his national roots and stature, but there was nothing small about the part he played for Boavista – becoming the cornerstone of Jaime Pacheco’s side and a rising star amongst his teammates.
Boa started the season well with 4-2 and 4-0 victories in their opening two fixtures before a 0-0 draw with Estrela da Amadora. Then Braga – the club most likely to make it into the ‘big four’ – inflicted their first defeat of the season on Matchday four.
But that hardly derailed the club’s good start – it was the game to light the touchpaper of Boavista’s most unforgettable season.
No club named other than Braga defeated Pacheco’s men from that point until season’s end; scoring 30 goals from the next 16 games as they swatted aside both Porto and Benfica by a goal to nil during the run-in.
A run of six consecutive wins from December to January wrestled the title into their hands, and they would never relinquish that grip.
Another defeat to Braga and a draw with Lisbon rivals Benfica slowed progress but they were soon on the march again – notching 28 points from a possible 30 to put them on the brink of greatness as they hosted Aves on May 18th.
A deflected free-kick and a ‘Hand of God-esque’ punch by Silva put Boa in control (when your luck’s in, you’re destined to win the title), before Whelliton made the game safe with half-an-hour to go.
Not only were Boavista going to be crowned Champions, but they were doing it on their terms, and with a game to spare.
At the final whistle, players, staff and fans alike ran amok the Besso turf, as generations of supporters witnessed a moment even the most deluded of Panthers fans thought would never come.
From the stands, João Loureiro – the Presidential mastermind behind the success – conducted the orchestra, as Petit and the like collapsed to the ground in tears.
Boavista for so long had been a dull, doldrum dwelling, run-of-the-mill club in the shadow of not only Benfica and Sporting, but also City rivals Porto – the club they travelled to on the final day, as Primeira Champions.
They may have lost the O Derby 4-0 (their only defeat to a side other than Braga that season), but it did little to dampen the mood.
“We won because we were the best”, Pacheco stated bluntly – but not without reason.
His side conceded the fewest, scored the second-most and lost half the games that Porto did. Fabio Capello famously claimed that ‘no other club in Europe runs as much’ – a toast to their success, from a man who knows plenty about that.
Like Belenenses, Boa initially remained competitive and enjoyed historic European nights against the likes of Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund, but it soon fell apart.
Debts mounted as players on large contracts with big bonuses from their title-winning side plagued them during the mid-noughties, as ground renovations to suit the needs of Euro 2004 ate up further finances with little monetary backing from the Portuguese government.
It all came to head in 2008, as Boavista were found guilty of coercing match officials and were banished to the third division of Portuguese football.
They were later allowed to rejoin the Primeira in 2014, but the glory days are all but a distant memory for the Boa faithful – although not quite as dim as those down in Estádio do Restelo.
Belenenses were relegated in 2010 and didn’t return to the top flight until 2013, before going on to qualify for the Europa League in 2015 – led most of the way by Lito Vidigal, a former Belenenses and, ironically enough, Elvas full-back. But disaster was looming in the background, as the club reached its crescendo during 17/18.
All Portuguese club’s in the top two tiers must have formed a SAD (Sociedade Anónima Deportiva), or a Public Limited Sports Company in layman’s terms.
But when shares were sold to an investment fund in 2012 the tide turned and the fans’ relationship with the SAD grew so sour that, when their six-year-deal came to an end in 2018, the supporters split and took their sides down into the regional leagues of Portuguese football.
As they look to rebuild ‘AFC Wimbledon’ style, Belenenses SAD continue to ply their trade in the Primeira under a new identity and with a small portion of home support.
At the time of writing, on average, a club outside of the ‘big three’ wins the Primeira every 44 years, and with just one other winner during each century of its existence.
By now, Benfica, Porto and Sporting control everything in the nation’s footballing scene; economics, politics, laws, media – their dominance feels almost impenetrable, as the two clubs who dared to dream are now lightyears away from repeating the feat.
Boa celebrated the title on Porto’s home soil and defeated Dortmund in Europe, while the original Belenenses played Real Madrid to open the Santiago Bernabéu in the 1940s, spent the fourth most seasons in the Primeira and hosted bands such as The Killers and James at their home ground.
They dared to dream, and maybe if they hadn’t seen such riches, they could live with being poor.
By: James Pendleton / @Jpends_
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Reuters