TugaScout is an English-language site reporting on matters associated with Portuguese football by freelance writer Alex Goncalves, offering the latest news, reviews and opinions surrounding the Portuguese League and the Seleção players based abroad.

Ajax's Champions League fairytale gives Portuguese clubs hope

Ajax's Champions League fairytale gives Portuguese clubs hope

Porto's Champions League triumph in 2004 marks the last time that a Portuguese side made it to at least the semifinal of Europe's most prestigious club competition.

That year, Porto, led by a youthful Jose Mourinho, went all the way to the final and ultimately won the tournament after a 3-0 victory over Monaco in Germany.

Other than that, a Portuguese club has never reached the final of the Champions League, which inaugurated in 1992, and have collectively only ever reached the semifinal of the continental cup competition on one other occasion, back in 1993-94 when Porto lost 3-0 to Barcelona.

Porto are therefore the only side to have ever made the last four of the tournament under it's current branding, Benfica's best ever showing being the quarter final stage, which they have managed to reach on four occasions in 14 attempts.

Meanwhile Sporting's best showing came in 2008-09, when they advanced to the Round of 16 for the one and only time since 1992. Indeed, they've only qualified for the Champions League group stage on 8 occasions in the 26 years since the Champions League as we know it today was introduced, and have only gone on to make it out of the group on one occasion in all those 8 attempts.

The only other two clubs who have ever represented Portugal in the Champions League proper are Braga and Boavista, on two occasions each. Neither made it to the knockout stages on either attempt.

With success in European competition so often used as the yardstick to judge the strength of a domestic league, that makes for particularly grim reading for fans of Portuguese and Primeira Liga football.

For a nation that prides itself on its footballing ability and so often expects the Big Three clubs in the country to compete with the best sides on the continent, the facts are damning and it's time to face reality - Portuguese football hasn't been close to a sufficient level to compete with the best in Europe for well over a decade now.

In fact, barring that stunning Champions League campaign by Porto in 2004, Portuguese football, as good as we like to think it is, hasn't truly competed since the Champions League ever started.

Portugal compared to other nations

But we shouldn't be too harsh, of course. In fact, if you compare Portugal's performances in the Champions League to that of all the other countries in Europe, you'll see that, on the grand scheme of things, Portugal are doing a great deal better than the majority of nations, some of which have much larger populations and perhaps even resources than that of Portugal.

Indeed, barring Spain, Italy, Germany and England, who have been dominating Europe for the past two decades with their significant financial backing, Portugal are performing to an extremely high level compared to the rest.

Even in comparison to France, who are considered to boast the far superior league and house a couple of clubs with significant financial backing, Portugal hold their own; while Portugal's last Champions League triumph came in 2004, a French club hasn't won the competition since 1993, a far longer European Cup drought than that of Portugal, while they too have struggled to make deep runs in the competition, only making 2 semi-final appearances as a collective in the last 15 years (Lyon in 2010 and Monaco in 2017).

And if you then compare Portugal to the rest of Europe, it becomes clear that Portugal are actually doing a decent job for their size.

A Russian club, for example, has never reached the semi-final of the Champions League, and has only reached the Quarter Final once since 1996 (CSKA Moscow in 2010), In that same time, Portugal have been represented at the quarter finals on 9 separate occasions.

That's despite Russia having a far superior financial backing for their clubs, and a league that is considered, overall, stronger than the Portuguese Primeira Liga.

The Dutch clubs as a collective haven't performed better than the Portuguese clubs either. While Portugual have been represented in the Champions League quarter final 11 times since the competition in its current branding began in 1992, Netherlands have only been represented at the same stage 7 times, including this season.

To further show how well Portuguese clubs have done to reach the quarter final 11 times, Greece, Turkey and Ukraine combined have by contrast only reached the last eight of the Champions League 9 times. And that's, to reiterate, combined.

You then have the likes of Belgium, Scotland, Switzerland, Romania, Czech Republic and Denmark who have never had a club reach the final 8 of the illustrious competition, further emphasising Portugal's strong efforts in Europe.

But still, perhaps fairly, fans of Portuguese football aren't particularly content, believing that they have the quality to perform even better than they have been doing, or at least want to believe that the likes of Benfica and Porto are capable of doing so.

But that dream has been slowly fading over the last decade. Having seen clubs in the likes of Spain, England, Italy and Germany spend the equivalent of the best Portuguese club's entire budgets on a single player, the prospect of ever being able to truly compete with the very best in Europe has been fading dramatically. With limited financial resources compared to the top 6 in England, the top 3 in Spain and a few clubs from Germany, France and Italy too, simply making the semifinal of the Champions League has for too long looked like an improbable ambition.

But then came Ajax. A team that, like Benfica, Porto and Sporting, lacks the necessary financial clout to compete with the continent's heavyweights and is highly reliant on the stars coming through the academy. Yet they are now on the brink of progressing to the Champions League final. 

It's the stuff of fairytales, an unexpected triumph in the modern game, in a climate where financial backing is deemed a necessity to any self-respecting European giant. And yet here they are, breaking the mould. 

Only this year we wrote a story on how a Portuguese club will likely never win the Champions League again, certainly in our lifetimes, due to the financial gulf between the likes of La Liga and the Primeira Liga. But Ajax have quickly trampled that belief.

Now supporters of top clubs outside the top 5 leagues suddenly believe that they too could one day taste Champions League glory. After all, if a team from the Eridivisie can do it, why can't one from the Primeira Liga do it too?

Ajax have given newfound belief to the rest of Europe that their success could be replicated should the right generation come along - and it's refreshing to see.

Of course, it awaits to be seen if this is just a one-off season before we return to the norm in European football. After all, this was one of the more unpredictable Champions League campaigns, what with Real Madrid performing well below their usually high standards and the likes of PSG, Manchester City and Juventus also falling short of preseason expectations. It no doubt has been a far more open tournament than people anticipated; few would have expected a Tottenham-Ajax semifinal at the start of the campaign. 

And it raises the question: is this a turning point in the very nature of European competition, or a one-off feel-good story that comes around once every 15 or so years? Perhaps unfortunately, the latter is by far the more probable, and one would expect that we will return to the dominance of the established elite in the coming decade, with the big-hitters from the top 4 or 5 leagues yet again annihilating the rest of the field as they compete alone in the latter stages of the competition.

It's unlikely to think that Ajax will be able to compete to this extent next season when their team is picked apart by the richest sides who all want a piece of the latest exciting Ajax generation, and we'll go back to seeing Champions League quarter finals almost exclusively reserved for teams in Germany, England, Spain, Italy and France, with the other 45 or so European countries continuing to be on the outside looking in.

Nevertheless, Ajax have succeeded where so many before them have for too long failed. They have given every nation the hope that they could still get that one season where everything falls into place, that one of their clubs could advance to the latter stages of the Champions League and upset the apple cart in modern day football, even if it's just for a solitary season. And fans of the Primeira Liga can look at Ajax's achievements as a new benchmark by which to judge their own success.

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