In Focus: Ola Portimonense

 

It started with a kiss. In the late 19th century Portimao native Pedro Bento d’Azevedo married English citizen Elizabeth Pearce. The Customs Officer acquired renown as an energetic businessman working in the tinned fish industry, and the union gave rise to the “Mary Elizabeth sardines” brand which would acquire fame and be exported all over the world. The couple had a son, Jose Pearce d’Azevedo, who would also leave an indelible mark on the local community, albeit in a completely different field – quite literally.  

Jose had a rare opportunity in that era, to go and study in London. Football had taken hold as the fashionable game of the time in the English capital, and the young Portuguese immediately fell in love with game. Back in Portugal, he showed all his father’s organisational acumen and dynamism by imparting his passion for the game among the young of Portimao, albeit in a somewhat anarchic versionPress cuttings from 1902 report on “a strange sport, with 11 players on each team frenziedly kicking a ball in opposite directions.”  

Although football was first played in the Algarve in Lagos, 30 kilometres along the coast to the west, those games involved solely crew members of English ships in transit at the busy port. The rudimentary games organised by d’Azevedo in Portimao lay claim to be the first played by native residents in the Algarve.  

A little over a decade later, on 14 August 1914, Portimonense Sporting Clube was founded, with its distinctive black and white striped shirt and Eagle mascot, as one of four local clubs in what had rapidly become a hotbed of football. The splendidly named Sporting Glória ou Morte Portimonense, which translates to Sporting Glory or Death Portimonense, initially dominated, but by the midthirties Portimonense had established itself as the foremost representative of the town, winning the Algarve championship in 1936/37, and would soon see off its neighbouring rivals to become the city’s sole football team.  

The appointment of Hungarian coach Lipo Herczka, who had won the national championship for three consecutive years at Benfica, gave the club further impetus and marked the start of a decades-long quest to join the elite of Portuguese football. Promotion to the top tier was close on several occasions, none more so than in 1948/49 when a formidable run saw Portimonense storm to first place in the second division and qualify for the promotion play-off. A scandal subsequently broke as Lisbon side Oriental were kicked out of the competition for throwing a game, and as Portimonense had a better record over their nearest rivals Académica de Coimbra during the season, some local newspapers announced the black and white’s arrival to the top flight. But they had jumped the gun. Académica used their considerable influence at ministerial level to force a hastily organised play-off for promotion in Lisbon, eventually beating the Algarve team 2-1.  

As a coastal town, Portimonense’s fortunes continued to be intertwined with the fishing industry. Several local fish preserve firms donated a proportion of their profits to the club, supporters would even travel to matches against nearby Olhanense on fishing boats, and many of the players were employed in the canning factories. The decline of the industry in the 1950s and 1960s therefore had serious repercussions for the club, and financial hardship forced Portimonense to sell their ground to pay off debts at one point 

The turning point came in the 1970s when the sudden economic boom brought by tourism, and subsequently civil construction, triggered unprecedented prosperity in the Algarve. A better calibre of player was attracted and finally, in 1975/76, the dream of promotion to Portugal’s upper echelon of football was realised, albeit for two seasons only before being relegated. Portimonense bounced straight back up though, and went on to enjoy its golden decade, spending the entirety of the 1980s in Portugal’s top tier and achieving a best finish of fifth place in 1984/85, which resulted in UEFA Cup qualification.  

The cooling of the tourism boom coincided with a decline in Portimonense’s fortunes. Relegation in 1990 signalled long period in the wilderness – interrupted briefly with a single season in the top flight in 2010/11.  

In keeping with the enterprising spirit of the club’s forefathers, the resurgence and modern history of Portimonense has come about through creative and proactive ideas moving the team forward, as shown, for example, by tapping into the Japanese market – a completely left-field idea in Portugal – and so it was natural that the opportunity to take part in the HKFC Citi Soccer Sevens was enthusiastically accepted.  

“We were extremely grateful to receive the invitation to take part,” says Rodiney SampaioPortimonense’s president of the football operations. “We will take a team made up of young players who will be in the senior side next season.”  

Portimonense has invested heavily in its youth set-up in recent seasons. It is one of 14 clubs who entered a team in the U-23 national championship, newly created by the Portuguese football federation this season, aimed at providing another high-quality competitive environment to develop Portugal’s young footballers. The improvements seen in forward Bruno Tabata and midfielder Bruno Reis, to name but two, suggest Portimonense’s focus on youth is paying off.  

But as an outward-looking club, Portimonense’s goals in Hong Kong go beyond furthering the careers of their young players.  

“Our objective is to show our club, our city and Portugal, through football, and to initiate an interchange with the city, the organisers and the other participating clubs,” added Sampaio 

Ambitious aims these may be, but they are entirely understandable and achievable intentions when viewed through the prism of the club’s recent success in reaching out. The Japan linkforged through connections with the Japanese Football Federation, in particular with  vice-president Takeshi Okada, who communicates directly with the Portimonense board, led to partnerships being put in place so that young Japanese players could obtain trials at the club, with other players successfully sent the other way 

The unlikely association bore spectacular fruits with the windfall from the sale of the brilliant attacking midfielder Shoya Nakajima in the 2019 winter transfer windowIn his debut season the skilful and speedy youngster destroyed opposition defences up and down the country, scoring 10 goals and providing 13 assists in 33 games in all competitions. Rumours were rife of a move to one of Portugal’s big clubs – Benfica, FC Porto or Sporting  but his transfer value quickly rocketed out of the price range of domestic rivals. More exceptional performances in the first half of 2018/19 led to Nakajima being sold for a reported €35 million to Qatari club Al Duhail. The funds are a massive boost to the Portimonense’s ambitions of firmly consolidating itself as a permanent fixture in Portugal’s top flight.  

“The funds from the Nakajima sale will be used to boost our constant investment in training and scouting infrastructures, covering footballers of different nationalities, albeit always giving local talent priority,” explained Sampaio“We will also make more investments and build more partnerships to improve the conditions of our football operation.”  

Ever since beating fierce local rivals Farense 2-1 in the final of the Algarve district youth cup in 1951Portimonense’s junior teams have has gone on to lift several regional and national trophies. The most famous player to come out of its football academy is Portugal midfielder JoaMoutinhoarguably the national team’s most important player after Cristiano Ronaldo over the past decade. Only Ronaldo and Luís Figo have won more caps than MoutinhoThe stylish and metronomically consistent midfielder was acquired by Lisbon giants Sporting after shining brightly in Portimonense’s youth  teams. He was Sporting captain by the age of 20, a hero at FC Porto where he won two league titles and the Europa Leaguechampion for Monaco in France and is currently shining brightly for Wolverhampton Wanderers in the English Premier League.  

 “This is our goal. To bring big talents to our academy and train them to become great footballers and great men,” added Sampaio 

Portimonense are again enjoying a positive season in the top flight, and the feel-good atmosphere around the club has encouraged hopes of a return to the heady days of the 1980s when the Algarve outfit were in the top spots in Portugal’s Primeira Liga.  

“In football anything is possible when you do things out of love, dedication and passion. The greatest example of this was in the Premier League when Leicester City became champions,” said Sampaio. 

Ask most people outside Portugal what they know about the Algarve and they will answer sunsea and an idyllic holiday destination. Step by step, Portimonense are on their way to becoming another of the region’s attractions.  

 

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