Tiny Portuguese club finished third
20 June ~ With an average crowd of just 1,769, Paços de Ferreira continue to exceed all expectations by securing an eighth consecutive season in the Portuguese top flight. The fact that they have also qualified for the Champions League is a monumental feat. It is likely that the club's 5,255-capacity Estádio da Mata Real will be deemed inadequate so they may be forced to play the home leg of their Champions League qualifier at either Guimarães or Braga, two of their bigger rivals they outperformed to achieve third place.
With Porto and Benfica losing only once between them, Paços have capitalised on the downturn in fortunes of Sporting Lisbon, who endured a dreadful campaign and eventually finished seventh. Based in Portugal's "capital of furniture", a name acquired due to the close proximity of Ikea's industrial operations, the club were founded in 1950 as Vasco da Gama, before changing their name.
Since winning the second division title in 2005, they have been a mid-table fixture in the top flight. Finishing sixth in 2007 saw them qualify for the UEFA Cup but they were defeated in the first round by AZ Alkmaar. Runners up in the Portuguese Cup in 2009, they qualified for the Europa League but were eliminated by Bnei Yehuda of Israel in the third qualifying round. The draw for the Champions League play-offs takes place on August 9 and Paços will be aiming to progress from the preliminary stages in European competition at the third attempt.
Paços were bottom of the table mid-way through the 2011-12 campaign but managed to end the season in tenth with 31 points. Last season, Paulo Fonseca replaced Henrique Calisto in charge and they matched that total with 13 games remaining, ending the season with 54 points and only suffering defeat against Benfica and Porto. Fonseca's reward was the top job at reigning champions Porto, while Paços have since appointed ex-Porto favourite Costinha, who will be assisted by former team-mate Maniche.
Having overseen Beira-Mar's recent relegation, Costinha is unproven as a manager and faces the daunting challenge of replicating a historic achievement. "It's an enormous pleasure and honour to be here because this is a real family,” Costinha said. "Paços are the champions of humility. This step is very important for me and the coaching staff. Repeating the third place last season is a difficult goal but nothing is impossible. We want to continue Paços' good work in recent years."
He will have to fend off the likes of Braga, who finished fourth and have a budget more than ten times greater, plus Sporting, who will be keen to restore some pride. His talented squad have been playing at the peak of their powers and none of them has managed to earn a call-up to the Portuguese national side. But making the group stages of the Champions League would bring prestige and long-term financial security – as well as making them the toast of the municipality's 8,500 residents. Scott Johnson