How Braga Climbed a Mountain
Portugal's unlikely giant-killer is on the brink of reaching the Europa League final
Take a medieval city in Portugal's Costa Verde. Add a millionaire construction magnate, a stadium carved into the side of a mountain, a young coach with an old-school approach, 19 overseas players and one opportune own-goal.
What you've got is this year's Cinderella story of European football: Sporting Braga.
With a jaw-dropping upset of Dynamo Kiev this month, preceded by surprising wins against Liverpool and Lech Poznan, Braga—a team whose only major trophy came back in 1966 when it won the Portuguese Cup—has earned a spot in Thursday's semifinals of the UEFA Europa League, the second biggest tournament in European club football.
Braga isn't the only surprise name in the final four, of course. Benfica, which plays host to Braga on Thursday in the first game of their two-leg semifinal, hasn't progressed this far in European competition in almost two decades. Meanwhile, Villareal, which plays FC Porto in Thursday's other semifinal, hails from a town of just 40,000 on Spain's eastern coast.
But Braga's advance is more remarkable because its squad is made up of a collection of other clubs' cast-offs and has been assembled at nowhere near the cost of the team's semifinal rivals.
The club's success has prompted many football fans to search their atlases for this cobblestoned city in northern Portugal, and to realize that in the flashy, money-soaked world of modern football, there's still room for a team built on old-style discipline, a strong work-rate and stout defense.
"For many, it is unthinkable Braga is in the position that we are in," says Domingos Paciencia, the Braga head coach. "But with the desire that this team has, it can go far. As things stand, we believe that anything is possible."
Indeed, Braga has already overcome some hefty challenges. A decade ago, this team was an also-ran in Portuguese football, which has long been dominated by three teams—Porto, Benfica and Sporting are known as Os Tres Grandes (Big three) and have won all but two championships since 1934.
By contrast, Braga had finished in the top five just twice in 20 years prior to 2003. Yet the team's meteoric rise started eight years ago, when Antonio Salvador, owner of a construction empire, was elected club president and the team moved into a breathtaking new stadium.
Built by the municipal government to stage matches during the 2004 European Championship finals, the roughly 30,000-seat Estadio AXA is built into the side of a rock face on the site of a former quarry and named after the French insurance giant, which has sponsored the stadium since 2007.
As well as providing the club with a bigger arena and revenue from a multimillion dollar naming-rights deal, Braga has also capitalized on the uniqueness of a stadium in which stands run only along the sidelines, while the area behind the goals is left open: The rock wall of the quarry stands at one end, while the other offers an open view of the city sprawling in the distance.
As a result, games in Braga feel different than those elsewhere. Arsenal, Sevilla, Liverpool, Glasgow Celtic, Dynamo Kiev and Partizan Belgrade, have all lost at Braga's stadium this season—and not one of them managed so much as a goal. "It's unlike any other stadium in the world," says Tiago, the Atletico Madrid and Portugal midfielder.
Yet whatever advantages the stadium brings, Braga's success is largely down to a recruitment strategy implemented by Salvador, the team president, that targets the cast-offs from Portugal's big three and has allowed Braga to make a profit on player transactions in each of the past eight seasons.
Unlike most clubs in Portuguese football, whose rosters are overwhelmingly composed of homegrown players, Braga has focused almost exclusively on foreign players discarded by the top teams—the current squad has 12 players from Brazil alone—while just one player (recent debutant Aníbal Capela) came through the club's academy.
In addition, there must be something special going on in the Braga locker room, since the team has maintained a steady rate of improvement despite a prodigious turnover of staff at the club. Braga has had eight managers in the past five years and regularly sells its most successful performers in order to keep its wage bill manageable.
Paciencia says the team succeeds by instilling in its players the old-fashioned values of hard work, discipline and camaraderie. "We do not change our identity and our principles," he says. "We want to be a team that's very strong in terms of organization and attitude."
This commitment to players with character is evident in the grounded behavior of Braga's players, who still shake the hands of visiting journalists waiting to interview them. But it is also demonstrated by the remarkable defensive record of a squad in which there's no room for slackers.
Last season, Braga surrendered just 20 goals in 30 league games. This year, the team rides into Benfica's Estadio da Luz on a 12-game unbeaten streak and has conceded just two goals in six Europa League games this season. According to statistics from Castrol, a sponsor of the 2012 European Championship, Braga has also limited opponents to an average of just 2.3 shots on target per game, a record for the tournament this season.
Despite the team's success this season, Braga will face a steep climb to overcome Benfica and reach the Europa League final in Dublin's Aviva Stadium on May 18. Braga hasn't beaten Benfica in Lisbon in more than 50 years. In addition, the club can't expect too many repeats of its quarterfinal win over Dynamo Kiev, in which the Ukrainian team's midfielder Ognjen Vukojevic scored an own-goal that sent Braga through to the final four.
But some observers believe the team's unlikely run isn't done yet. "Braga are the underdogs, but they have caused so many upsets in the Europa League, beating Liverpool and Dynamo Kiev," says Padraig Amond, an Irish striker who plays for Paços de Ferreira in Portugal. "It wouldn't surprise me if they caused a shock and got to the final."