These are exciting times for Sporting Braga. Now in their 90th year of existence, the club from the north of Portugal are readying themselves for Wednesday’s UEFA Europa League final against near neighbours Porto in Dublin, the crowning moment of a spectacular season on the continental stage.
After reaching the group phase of the UEFA Champions League for the first time in their history, eliminating seasoned European campaigners such as Celtic and Sevilla, Os Arsenalistas narrowly missed out on qualification to the knockout rounds, but had the consolation of a place in the UEFA Europa League. Warming to their task again, they then cut continental giants Liverpool and Benfica down to size to reach their maiden European final.
Though a special occasion for all the members of Domingos Paciencia’s overachieving outfit, Wednesday showpiece in Dublin carries extra significance for Miguel Garcia, Custodio and Hugo Viana, who were all on the losing side in the 2005 UEFA Cup final, when Sporting Lisbon lost to CSKA Moscow in front of their own fans.
“It’s the biggest game of my career because I honestly didn’t think I’d play in another European final. It’s a chance I can’t afford to waste,” says Garcia, who became known as The Hero of Alkmaar after scoring the goal that clinched victory for Os Leões over the Dutch club in a heart-stopping semi-final in 2005, taking them through to that ill-fated final.
As fate would have it, it was Custodio, another ex-Sporting player, who would secure Braga’s place in this year’s showpiece. His was the goal that gave Os Guerreiros do Minho victory in the second leg of their semi-final against domestic foes Benfica, prompting the fans and the press to dub him The Hero of A Pedreira, the name of Braga’s spectacular stadium.
“Every member of this fantastic squad of players is a hero,” said the modest midfielder, playing down his soubriquet. “It wasn’t easy for us to get here, playing against so many big teams, and that’s what made us heroes. There aren’t too many players who can say they’ve played in two European finals, and we’ve made history just by reaching the final. Now we want to go on and lift the trophy.”
Viana, the third member of the former Sporting trio looking for redemption, is also full of anticipation ahead of the duel with Porto. “Expectations are very high and it’s all going to come down to 90 or 120 minutes. We can’t think about anything other than victory. It’s great to be in final. It’s amazing for us, but we have to be relaxed about it. We’re not going to win if we start seeing demons. That’s the only way we can bring the trophy back to Braga.”
All the same, Braga face a daunting task in what is the first ever all-Portuguese European final. Opponents Porto have swept all before them this season, winning the league title after going 30 games unbeaten, and have a Portuguese Cup final to look forward to as well as their Dublin showdown. Not surprisingly, Braga coach Paciencia has named Os Dragões as the favourites, but that does not mean to say his side will be going to the Irish capital just to make up the numbers.
“Being the favourites doesn’t mean anything at a time like this,” comments Custodio. “To win games like these you have to be humble, go all out for victory, and have a team packed with quality players too.
The element of surprise is another factor Custodio and his fellow ex-Sportinguistas will be hoping can work in their favour on Wednesday evening.
“Anything can happen in a final,” says Garcia. “With Sporting in 2005 we were at home in front of our fans, and we thought we had the game won at half-time because CSKA hadn’t even created a chance. But they stunned us in the second half. This time around we don’t have as much expectation on us, even though the objective is still the same, and that’s to win.”
“Miguel, Custodio and I will be doing everything we can to make it sure it turns out differently this time,” adds Viana, having the final word. “Braga is the team of the moment. Our name is right up there in Europe now and after the run we’ve had, knocking out those great teams, this is going to be a very special day for us. We have to keep on making history for the club and for the fans.”