Joel Amorim

FC Porto, Benfica and Sporting Lisbon are in many ways the three stooges of Portuguese football. The trio have been ruling football forever in the small Iberian country, both during the dictatorial times of the Estado Novo and following the Carnation Revolution of 1974. They are known as the "Big Three” and throughout the history of Portuguese football very few teams have dared to disturb their dominance. Only two clubs have managed to win the Portuguese Primeira Liga title outside the trio: CF Os Belenenses won the crown in 1945/46, while more than half a century later Boavista triumphed in 2000/01.

The Big Three’s hegemony at the top of the table has only really been interrupted for abnormal reasons or when, in 2000/01, another side proved to be stronger than the trio combined, as was the case with Jaime Pacheco’s Boavista.

Over the last four or five years, with Boavista trapped in the Portuguese lower leagues, another team have risen to dare to defy the Big Three hegemony: SC Braga. Mostly due to their president’s vision and ambition, Braga have stood firm between Porto, Benfica and Sporting, and managed to dethrone Sporting from the top three. However, the “intruders” appear now to be losing power and lost their spot in the top three last season to an even more modest team named FC Pacos de Ferreira. This term Braga changed coach once again, but even all the experience and knowledge of charismatic Portuguese boss Jesualdo Ferreira has not been able to help them rise again, so far.

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The history of Portuguese football is intrinsically linked to the history of the Big Three. Benfica and Sporting ruled the nation’s game before the democratic revolution of 1974, with Benfica imposing their dominance during the era of the legendary Eusebio in the 1960s and Sporting dictating the rules in the late 1940s and early 1950s, inspired by a group of five talented players known as the 5 Violinos (5 violins). 

However, after 25th April 1974 things started to change, mostly due to one man, Jose Maria Pedroto, who first broke into the top three with Boavista and then readied Porto for their large collection of titles. Ze do Bone, as he was affectionately known, was arguably the most brilliant Portuguese coach of all-time. He was the first Portuguese boss with a diploma and was marked out by his advanced and uncommon working methodology which still inspires coaches in the country today. Pedroto was responsible for leading Porto to their walk of fame and over the last 40 years the club have won no less than 22 Primeria Liga titles, a considerable amount of other domestic competitions, along with continental success which includes two European Cups.

After several atypical seasons, the natural order of Portuguese football looks to have returned this term. The Big Three are at the top of the table once again, with Porto leading the pack, Sporting second and Benfica third. Sporting especially appear to have found their groove again under new head coach Leonardo Jardim, who has managed to inspire the club’s fans, with resounding backing for his project to start a new winning era. Lisbon rivals Benfica, in contrast, have doubts hanging over coach Jorge Jesus, with the boss still struggling to convince fans he is the right man to continue in charge.

The natural order of Portuguese football is something not easy to counteract. History has taught that the order is only disrupted when someone with immense talent or magnificent ambition and nerve takes control of a team and makes them believe they can oppose and even surpass the establishment. Pedroto taught Porto how to do it, while Pacheco, inspired by Pedroto’s teachings, managed a brief interruption with Boavista. Will another club rise to break the party at the top of the Portuguese football tree? Or will the Big Three continue to rule for decades to come?

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