It’s official. After months of scoffing at the ideaof being Portuguese title candidates, Boavista have finally acknowledged what everyone else in the country has known for some time – that they have emerged from the shadow of Oporto big brothers FC Porto and claimed their first championship.

Despite being top of the table since January, the party line at Boavista was to stress that a European qualifying spot was their only objective. But with the finishing line in sight and the team continuing to prosper, both president Dr Joao Loureiro and coach Jaime Pacheco have opted to stop the game of bluff.

“It was because of the players that we decided to change our initial goals,” explained Pacheco. “We’ve been leading the table for some time and our exceptional squad deserves it. All my players are at the peak of their form and I find it hard to find an area of the team which needs strengthening.

“We can be champions. We are in a good position and know that our destiny is in our own hands. But if we don’t make it, no one is going to die because of it.”

In fact, Pacheco had no choice but to tell it as it is. They have become the first team from outside the Big Three – FC Porto, Sporting Lisbon and Benfica – to take the title since Belenenses in 1946.

They have been the most consistent team in Portugal this term by some margin – only two defeats in 29 games (both against Braga) at press time – they are impregnable at their Bessa stadium home, and boast an excellent record against the Big Three. They have taken four points out of six from Benfica and gained deserved goalless draws away to champions Sporting Lisbon and FC Porto – results which helped put them 4 points clear of the pack one match to play.

Strangely, though, the unleashing of the Boavista underdogs has notmet with universal approval from the national soccer press. Some have criticised them for an excessively defence-orientated approach and for an attacking game based on athleticism and hard running rather than technical prowess.

Others claim they owe their dominance this season to the incompetence of the Big Three.

The latter theory is not short of substance. Benfica and Sporting were knocked off course when they sacked their coaches in mid-season; Benfica have been distracted by boardroom revolutions, long-standing cash-flow problems and investigations into their financial dealings; while the FC Porto management has been found guilty of complacency, neglecting to rejuvenate an ageing team.

However, if circumstances have been favourable, it was no foregone conclusion that Boavista would be the team of the season. Certainly they would not be in the position they occupy today without the stable administration and sound financial stewardship of Loureiro and his board.

On the coaching front, Pacheco has done sterling work since taking over from Mario Reis midway through the1997-98 campaign, welding a disparate group of Brazilian imports and every category of Portuguese professional – journeymen, promising youngsters and other clubs’ cast-offs – into a force to be reckoned with. No other Portuguese team is more organised, fitter or determined than Pacheco’s Boavista and every sector of his favoured 4-3-3 formation has its leading men.

Lively Brazilian attackers Duda and Whelliton have led the line well, veteran Bolivian playmaker Erwin Sanchez has been showing the verve and imagination that earned him the tag of ‘the South American Platini’ early in his career, and his supporting cast in midfield are no ham actors either.

Chunky, attack-minded Martelinho has pace to burn and is a wonderful counter-attacker; Rui Bento cleverly links the back line and the engine-room; while intelligent, industrious left-sided midfielder Petit is probably the most-improved youngster in the country, settling in so well since his move from Gil Vicente last summer that he is now in the full Portuguese squad.

But it is in defence that Boavista have most impressed. The highly promising Ricardo has gone from strength to strength since succeeding popular Cameroon keeper William early in the season, while the back four – usually comprising right-back Rui Oscar, left-back Erivan, and skipper Litos and Pedro Emanuel in the centre – has proved harder to crack than bank vault doors, conceding just 16 goals in the first 29 games of the campaign.

The spirit at Boavista is apparently made of the same resistant material as their defence. They form a tight-knit group and to make sure it stays that way, arch-motivator Pacheco seems set on nurturing a siege mentality at the club.

The gospel according to the coach is that neither referees, football authorities nor media want his club to prevail, and he has been mining this psychological seam for all he is worth.

“We’ve been discriminated against many times this season and this was another example,” stormed Pacheco after his side’s recent Portuguese Cup semi-final defeat by Maritimo, which he laid at the door of referee Joao Ferreira. “The ref let everything go. Perhaps he’s going to spend his holidays in Madeira (Maritimo’s home island).

“Referees are less prejudiced against teams that are regarded as the top ones. Double standards do operate. Some football commentators are against Boavista too. Some try to strip us of our strengths, to make light of our achievements. In Portugal we have the G3 (FC Porto, Benfica and Sporting Lisbon) and they don’t want it to become the G4.

“What we are fighting for is a championship won by fair means, decided out on the pitch.”

Benfica boss Toni was full of praise for the club, saying: “Jaime Pacheco knows exactly what he’s doing. Much more than you all think. Boavista should be an example to all the country. They deserve much praise for the way they have managed their sporting and financial affairs. Some people insist on looking at them as if it was 20 years ago. But that time has gone. “