As the Portuguese Primeira Liga drew to a close, all eyes were understandably on Benfica and Porto as they battled it out for the League Championship and, for the latter, the enviable record of enduring the season without defeat. Slipping underneath the radar, however, there has been another big story in Portuguese football this year: that of the relatively unknown Pacos De Ferreira and their qualification for the Champions League.

Pacos secured the third and final Champions League qualification spot in the Primeira Liga with a game to spare, and now find themselves only a two-legged playoff tie away from the elusive and lucrative group stages of Europe’s premier club competition.

Participation in the Champions League would be a wholly unprecedented chapter in the history of the club, who have forever played their football in the shadows of nearby Braga, Boavista and, in particular, of Portuguese giants FC Porto. While this season’s surprising rise to the higher echelons of the League is still unlikely to eclipse the achievements of their more illustrious neighbours, Pacos certainly deserve at least a small percentage of the column inches that are usually reserved for Porto and the other household names of the Portuguese game.

The town of Pacos De Ferreira – renowned more for its reputation as the country’s ‘Capital of Furniture’ than its sporting prowess – is located on the outskirts of Oporto in the north of Portugal. According to 2001 census statistics, it boasts a population of just 8,500 people, making the ascendancy of the town’s football team up the Portuguese league ladder all the more incredible. The club was officially born in 1950, joining the lower leagues of Portuguese football as Futebol Clube Pacos de Ferreira – the name which they still play under today – after previously competing under the titles of ‘Sport Club Pacense’ and ‘Vasco De Gama’ in the 1930’s and 40’s.

It wasn’t until 41 years after its inception that the club finally put itself on the Portuguese football map, earning promotion to the top flight upon winning the Segunda Liga title in the 1990-91 season. However, the team, affectionately nicknamed ‘Os Castores’ (Portuguese for ‘The Beavers’) would suffer demotion in 1994 after finishing their third season in the Primeira Liga in last position. A six year exodus from the top division meant that Pacos welcomed in the new millennium in the Segunda Liga, although they would again compete in the top flight in the 2000/2001 season after securing promotion once more.

The team began to show greater signs of stability after recording consecutive 9th, 8th and 6th place finishes in the top division; however, they were then relegated after an abysmal 2003/04 campaign. Having bounced back into the big time at the first attempt, Pacos will next year play their football in the Portuguese top flight for the eighth season in a row – a huge achievement for a club of its size.

After finishing in 10th position last season, no one could have foreseen Pacos’ euphoric rise to the heady heights of 3rd place this time around, including Head Coach Paulo Fonseca, who, at the beginning of the season, had earmarked a points tally of 38 and top-flight safety as a measure of the club’s ambitions. Fonseca, who only recently turned 40 years of age, and is in his first managerial posting in the top flight of Portuguese football, has already shown wisdom beyond his years by refusing to let himself, or his team, get carried away by their remarkable accomplishments.

Speaking prior to a significant 3-2 away victory against rivals Braga in February, Fonseca stated:

It’s an unprecedented, gratifying moment, but we cannot obsess about European competitions or third place. It’s a memorable moment for the club, one that all of us want to prolong.

Profound words at a profound moment, but not without a degree of realism and caution, as echoed by the sentiments of midfielder Manuel Jose:

We have a lot of quality and this has not happened by accident, but we have to keep our feet on the ground.

Pacos’ third place finish was confirmed when their sole remaining challengers, Braga, slumped to a surprise home defeat. Now, Fonseca and his players can begin to dream.

Emphasising that this season’s Primeira Liga campaign has been far from a fluke, Pacos recorded a significant 1-0 victory over Sporting a fortnight ago, thereby achieving the season double over the fallen Lisbon giants.  Furthermore, the club have only suffered defeat against Benfica and Porto this term, illustrating how deserving they are of their lofty position within the League. However, they still face a tough challenge to make it through the 4th round of qualification for the Champions League group stages at the beginning of next season, especially if manager Fonseca and several of the club’s star performers are poached by bigger clubs during the summer transfer window.

Progress into the group stages would surely see Pacos represent themselves as the smallest team ever to compete with Europe’s elite. In spite of The Beavers’ successes this year, an average crowd of 1,769 spectators have witnessed the club’s dramatic ascent, the lowest attendance of any team in Portugal’s top flight and less than the average in the English Conference.

With a capacity of just 5,255, Pacos’ Estadio Da Mata Real would not be eligible for use in the Champions League proper or qualification stages in accordance with UEFA regulations and, as such, the team would likely have to host their matches at nearby Guimaraes or Braga. Paulo Fonseca and his squad are unlikely to be too perturbed by this, as, at present, there appears to be widespread elation solely at the prospect of elevating the small town club to such an illustrious level.

Cynics may argue that the rise of Pacos and their potential Champions League outing may have been caused by the Portuguese economic crisis, which has seen the demise of several of the country’s more high profile clubs, most notably Sporting Lisbon, who are regular competitors for the third Champions League qualification spot. However, in achieving such unbridled success this season, the club have merely shown what can be accomplished on a meagre but sustainable budget, coupled with the team and community spirit of a small town club.

Should the name of Pacos De Ferreira co-exist alongside Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Manchester United in the Champions League next year, The Beavers of Portugal will undoubtedly have a far greater following than they have had this season, as neutral supporters from Portugal, Europe and beyond will offer their support to the Champions League’s smallest ever participants.

By Gary Armstrong

This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona