The Azores are a unique part of Portugal. A stunningly beautiful island archipelago located some 950 miles (1,446 km) west of Lisbon, renowned as a playground for Portuguese and foreign tourists alike.

Made up of 9 islands and home to just 245,746 inhabitants, these islands are a must for anyone visiting Portugal.

What about the football in one of Portugal’s outposts? Paul Gellard explores the region’s football tradition and history, and the teams and players hailing from the Atlantic islands.

Despite notable success stories in the not-too-distant past when it comes to football, the islands have had precious little to cheer about in recent years. Only one club competes in Portugal’s top two divisions - Santa Clara - and it’s not been an easy ride for them in recent years. Many of the clubs in the third tier, Campeonato de Portugal Prio (or more commonly, the CNS), have come close to promotion but failed at the final hurdle.

And it’s probably fair to say it’s been some time since the islands produced a player that was capable of gracing the top leagues in the world. Many will look back with fond memories to Pauleta who retired in 2011 following a distinguished career with Paris St Germain, Bordeaux, Deportivo La Coruña and Salamanca, as well as local clubs Operário, Angrense, Micaelense and Santa Clara. In fact, as homage to his home islands, the former Portugal international used to celebrate scoring a goal by mimicking the Açor Bird by wheeling away and waving his outstretched arms after hitting the net. He even earned the moniker of “L’Aigle des Açores” (Eagle of the Azores) from the French press.

So is there any hope for the immediate future? And what has happened this season? In this article we take a look at the progress of Santa Clara in Liga 2 and also of the four CNS clubs - two of which made it into the play-off Zona Sul. We also take a peek at those from the islands who are representing clubs in Portugal’s top-flight. This is their story…

 

THE TEAMS

 

Santa Clara - The Flagship Club

Without any doubt Clube Desportivo Santa Clara is the biggest club in the Azores. It has regularly competed in the top two divisions in Portugal and, thanks to a late run of results in the 2015-16 campaign, that tradition will continue into next season. The club is even nicknamed Os Açoreanos (the Azoreans) and is widely seen by many fans as an unofficial national side for the islands.

Currently competing in Liga 2, the club last tasted the heady heights of the top-flight Primeira Liga back in the 2002-03 season. It was to be the last of the club’s three seasons in the top-flight, the second in a row. Having secured promotion initially in 1999, the club was coached by former Portugal striker, Manuel Fernandes, and captained by Angolan national team midfielder, Paulo Figueiredo. Unfortunately, they couldn’t avoid relegation after just one season, finishing rock bottom in 18th place, albeit just 3 points off of safety.

However, the club’s fortunes changed rapidly the following season when they won promotion straight back to the top-flight. A first place finish in the Segunda Liga, 3 points clear of second placed Varzim and third placed Vitória Setúbal, gave the club more silverware and another shot at the big time.

The club clearly learnt from its experiences in 1999-00 as they avoided relegation on their return to the Primeira Liga, with a creditable 14th place finish. Under the tutelage of another former Portugal international, Carlos Manuel, the club relied on the midfield fulcrum of Paulo Figueiredo and Paiva and the goals of Spanish striker, Toñito.

The following season saw relegation and, with it, the last time the club plied its trade in the Primeira Liga. Since then, it has found a home in the Segunda Liga and with mixed fortunes. A high of 3rd place in the 2008-09 campaign has been complemented by two 4th place finishes (2006-07, 2009-10). However, it hasn’t all been close shaves at the right end of the table. Last season (2014-15) saw the club finish 19th. And in 2004-05 there was a 15th place finish (the division had only 18 teams), just 3 points clear of bottom side, Espinho.

This season’s campaign

In 2015-16 the club left it late to secure its Liga 2 status. However, just two defeats in the last eleven games and five victories in the last seven have meant that the club will once again be the only fully professional side on the islands next season. Stability is not a word that could easily be applied to Santa Clara’s current season. There have been no fewer than four coaches in the dugout at the Estádio de São Miguel during the campaign.

First up was Filipe Gouveia who made it until just Jornada 8. A record of 4 wins and 4 losses in those opening 8 games would perhaps seem reasonable to a side that is not renowned for being big spenders. However, Gouveia made way for Hugo Relvas who stepped into the breach for the next two games - draws with Mafra and Covilhã, before Fernando Valente was appointed. This was followed by two Taça de Portugal games - a penalty shootout win over CNS side, Pedras Rubras, and a 3rd Round elimination at the hands of another CNS side, Trofense. A run of 4 straight league losses followed before a victory on Jornada 15 against Benfica B in November.

After just another 4 wins in the next 16 games, Valente soon moved on and was replaced by current coach, Carlos Pinto, who inherited the side in 22nd position. With the bottom five sides relegated this season, the situation looked dire for the club. But with 15 games played under the former Freamunde and Tondela coach, there have only been 4 defeats and an impressive 6 victories.

The good run of form saw Santa Clara lift themselves to 16th position, three points above the relegation places. The goals of striker, Clemente (14 in all competitions), have been key to the club’s survival and he has been ably supported by Brazilian winger, Rafael Batatinha (8 goals in all competitions). Batatinha has been utilised as both a winger and out-and-out striker this season and has certainly not disappointed.

Ever reliable club captain Pedro Pacheco has also been a mainstay in the side’s midfield this season. Born in Ponta Delgada but a Canadian international, Pacheco has been with the club for 16 seasons in four separate spells. This season he scored 3 goals in 39 games and, at just 31 years of age, will surely give the club another few seasons of service. And there is also Brazilian centre-half, Accioly, who is in his 6th season and second spell with the club. The 35-year-old played 41 times this season and scored 2 goals, one of which was against Liga 2 champions, FC Porto B, back in January.

One thing is for sure, the fans will be looking for better next season and will be hoping for a productive rebuilding process.

 

Campeonato de Portugal Prio (CNS)

Portugal’s third tier is where the Azores finds itself well represented. However, the four clubs that competed in the competition in 2015-16 come from just two of the nine islands. Praiense (Praia da Vitória) and Angrense (Angra do Heroísmo) represent the island of Terceira, while Operário (Lagoa) and Sporting Ideal (Ribeira Grande) hail from the larger island of São Miguel.

Between them, the four clubs notched up four of the top five spots in Série E - Praiense topping the pile on 35 points after 18 games. Angrense finished second on 31 points which meant that both clubs qualified for the Zona Sul promotion division of the CNS. There they were to complete with six other clubs for a top two spot and the chance of promotion to Liga 2.

Angrense

The second phase Zona Sul began on 14th February and love truly was in the air as both clubs made good starts to the campaign. Angrense picked up a 2-1 home win over Casa Pia while Praiense earned a very creditable 2-2 draw at big-spending UD Leiria. The two then met in the second round where Roldão Duarte’s Angrense ran out 1-0 winners at the Municipal da Praia da Vitória to maintain their 100% start.

It was to be the last time Angrense would taste victory until Jornada 9, ironically against Praiense again. A run of two draws and four losses all but eliminated the club from the top two places and a lucrative promotion. A 4-1 thrashing of their Azores rivals at Municipal de Angra do Heroísmo on 10th April was a small consolation, but this was followed up by five consecutive defeats, leaving the club in penultimate position (7th) with just 11 points from 14 games.

A definite positive for the club has been striker Pedro Aguiar. The 26-year-old local boy has been with the club since the age of 8 and managed to find the net on no fewer than 17 occasions in all competitions this season. A feisty competitor, he has also seen red on three occasions. A brace in the 4-1 win over Praiense has only helped increase his stock with local fans. And his strike partner Magina also bagged 16 goals this season. This includes a hat-trick over Praiense in Jornada 6 of the Série E phase. It would also be remiss not mention the almost ever present, Miguel Oliveira, who put in a real shift with 30 CNS games this season.

Praiense

Sport Clube Praiense, coached by Pedro Lima, fared somewhat better in the 2015-16 season. In fact the club will surely be disappointed that the season hasn’t ended on a better note, as they narrowly missed out on top two places in Zona Sul.

Having won the Série E phase comfortably, Praiense’s form was inconsistent thereafter. The opening three games of the Zona Sul brought a draw and two losses before the club then went on to win 5 of the next 8 games. Indeed, the club hit the heady heights of 2nd spot after a 1-0 victory over Moura on Jornada 11 before starting Jornada 13 in 3rd position and with a real opportunity of a top two spot. However, 1º Dezembro, from Sintra clearly hadn’t read the script and condemned the Azoreans to a 1-2 defeat at home. It left Praiense in 6th position on 18 points, but a 4-2 win away to Zona Sul champions, Cova da Piedade, ended the season in style and led to a 4th place finish.

Pedro Lima has unearthed some gems this season and second top goalscorer, Marco Aurélio, is one such player. The Lagoa-born striker played 23 league games for Liga 2 title winners, Tondela, last season and scored just 2 goals. However, his spell in the CNS this season has been kinder to him and a haul of 12 league goals in 28 league appearances has been a big reason for the club’s success. Winger, Hélder Arruda, is another discovery this season having joined from Azorean rivals, Operário, last summer. The former Santa Clara man has seen a return of 9 league goals in 29 games since joining Praiense and he has complemented Aurélio and the club’s top scorer, Filipe Andrade (15 goals in 22 league games) superbly to cement the side’s threat as an attacking force.

Operário

One of the best known clubs in the Azores, Operário were unlucky to miss out on a chance to compete in the Zona Sul for the second phase of the season. They narrowly missed out after Jornada 18, finishing just 3 points behind second place, Angrense and a point behind third placed, AD Nogueirense.

A plus for the club is that it has continued its strong form in the second phase of the now eight-team Série E. Top spot was secured with a game left to play, and Operário finished with an 11-point lead over Azores rivals, Sporting Ideal, in second. The side won 9 out of the 14 second phase games, tasting defeat on just three occasions. Coach André Branquinho has built a competitive side and has relied primarily on the goals of wingers, Rodrigo Parreira (12 in 32 league games), and João Ventura (8 in 30 league games). 22-year-old Ventura came to the club with much experience having spent the last three campaigns with Santa Clara in Liga 2. There has also been the tall centre-half, Pedro Tavares, who has contributed 2 goals from 31 appearances this season. The 22-year-old returned to Operário this season after spending the last campaign on the mainland with Loures.

Sporting Ideal

Last but not least, we come to Sporting Ideal from Ribeira Grande. The side finished 5th in the first phase of the Série E campaign, just 3 points behind Operário. However, the second phase of the season was kinder to the club and they finished in second position behind their Azores rivals..

Ideal’s coach is Luís Roquette and he has overseen his side’s slightly inconsistent run-in which brought 6 wins, 6 losses and 2 draws. Hidden in the wins column is a victory over Operário in April, restoring some Azores pride to the club.

The goals have come primarily from 24-year-old striker, Paulo César (11 in 16 league games), and his strike partner, Amaral (8 in 26 league games). Ribeira Grande-born, Artur Santos, has anchored the midfield this season but produced only the one goal from 30 appearances, against Coimbra back in November. There has also been a welcome addition during the transfer window of Tiago Correia. The 21-year-old centre-half joined from Águias Moradal in the Leiria region, having played out the first phase of CNS with that club in Série F. Since the move, Correia has played 11 times for Ideal and even contributed 2 goals to the cause.

 

THE PLAYERS

 

Top-Flight Azoreans

Earlier in this article I mentioned Pauleta. Capped 88 times for Portugal, and contributing 47 goals, the former Paris St Germain striker is undoubtedly the Azores’ most famous footballing product to date. However, what of the remainder of the production line? Well, happily for Azores fans, there are other players currently making an impact in the Portuguese top flight…

Perhaps the best known Azorean currently in the Liga NOS is Benfica’s full-back, Eliseu. Born in Angra do Heroísmo to a Portuguese father and a Cape Verdean mother, the 32-year-old has been a regular for the Eagles over the last two championship-winning seasons.

Having begun his career on the islands with Marítimo Angra, he made the move to Lisbon in 2001 to sign for Belenenses as a junior, going on to play over 50 games for the first team. His fine form in Lisbon earned him a move to La Liga club, Malaga, in Spain. A €1m move to Lazio in Italy followed but, after just half a season and 2 senior appearances, Eliseu left Rome to return to Spain and sign on a half-season loan with Real Zaragoza. A return to Malaga saw him play over 100 games before signing for Jorge Jesus’ Benfica in 2014, winning the title in his first season at the club. He also has 14 full caps for Portugal, is in the Seleção Euro 2016 squad and is a likely starter for Fernando Santos’s side in France.

Iuri Medeiros is another Azorean who has been making waves in the Liga NOS this season, with Moreirense relying on the Horta-born attacking midfielder’s goals for safety. Miguel Leal’s side narrowly avoided relegation this season and this is thanks in large part to the 8 goals that Medeiros contributed in 29 appearances, mainly playing wide on the right. Especially impressive is the fact the winger found the net twice against Porto and twice against Benfica in 2015-16.

Still only 21 years old, Medeiros began playing with Sporting Clube da Horta before moving to Lisbon at the age of just 11 to join Sporting’s youth setup. He began playing with the club’s B team in 2012-13 but never made a first team appearance, leaving in January 2015 for a loan spell with Arouca for whom he made 17 appearances and scored 3 goals. Another loan move to Moreirense in the summer of 2015 has proven to be a profitable for this talented Portugal Under-21 international and he is set to be a key player in Portugal’s team at the Olympic Games in August. There were even calls for him to be included in Fernando Santos’ senior squads this season and one fancies that it won’t be long before that call is heeded. Medeiros has been recalled by Sporting and don’t be surprised if he has plenty of playing time at Alvalade next season.

Rounding off this article are the two Azores currently at Paços de Ferreira - Minhoca and Paulo Henrique. Both players are Ponta Delgado-born and began their careers in the Azores, being signed from Santa Clara.

19-year-old Henrique only joined Paços in the summer of 2015 and has found games hard to come by. Having joined the Liga NOS side from Santa Clara, he has made just three appearances in all competitions in 2015-16, but managed to find the net in the 4-3 win at União in the 2nd round of the Taça da Liga. Although he is a centre-half, Henrique has played all his football for Paços at left-back.

Minhoca, by comparison, joined Paços back in 2014, again from Santa Clara. He also spent time in the Azores playing for third tier side, Micaelense. As with Paulo Henrique though, the 28-year-old found first-team action hard to come by this season, playing 11 games in all competitions throughout the campaign. He found the net twice - against União and Tondela - playing in a “number 10” role behind the Paços lone striker.

By Paul Gellard