Famalicão: The Portuguese minnows leading the way in the Primeira Liga looking to change the nature of Portuguese football for good
News of Famalicão’s heroics in Portuguese football is beginning to deservedly reverberate around the continent as they continue to defy even the most optimistic of expectations by toppling both Benfica and Porto at the top of the Primeira Liga at this early stage of the new campaign.
Here, we take a look at Project Famalicão, how they got here and, more pertinently, if they can keep it going and cause one of the biggest upsets in recent footballing history.
Their Journey so far
It is perhaps difficult to believe that Famalicão were playing in the fifth tier of Portuguese football as recently as 2009, relegated to the regional league alongside little-known Nogueirense FC the season before.
To put into context how far Primeira Liga table-toppers Famalicão have come in such a short space of time, Nogueirense by contrast are still trapped in the lower echelons of the domestic game, now currently bottom of the 4th tier of the Portuguese game, yet to even get a point on the board in the Porto Elite Division having just been promoted from the Porto Division of Honour last campaign.
Famalicão are therefore living the often unattainable dream of every local club scrapping it out at the lower reaches of domestic football, rising through the ranks to reach the ultimate pinnacle of the national game.
Their rise back to the top flight, though, having last played in the Primeira Divisao 25 years ago in the early 1990s, has been gradual, slowly improving season upon season since 2009 to make this a gruelling but ultimately enjoyable journey to their current lofty heights.
And, on paper, this would come across as one of the ultimate fairytales, a tale of a genuine minnow progressing to a level most would have deemed entiely impossible.
Having previously only competed in the Portuguese top flight 7 times in their 88 year history, spending the vast majority of that time in the second and third tiers of the national game, this is therefore a truly exciting time for the town of Famalicão and, although they were always tipped to have a very strong season, their current performance level in the Portuguese flight is already, despite only being 6 games in, turning into the most memorable the club has ever seen, overachieving in a league where upsets are sparse and champions are reserved for the most exclusive selection of clubs.
Jorge Mendes’ latest project
Seeing anyone outside the ‘Big Three’ + Braga leading the Portuguese league standings, even in just the 6th gameweek, would ordinarily be wholly surprising, let alone a newly-promoted side. And yet, while Famalicão’s rise to the Primeira Liga has been admirable and impressive in equal measure, their ability to ease into life in the Portuguese top flight is by no means a shock, and most would have predicted for them to go on to have a particularly strong season on their return to the Primeira Liga, even if not quite to the extent that they have shown early on.
Indeed, they were likely backed by the vast majority of Portuguese football fans to at least match their best ever campaign in the Portuguese top flight (13th) due to some truly exceptional recruitment over the summer turning them into a genuinely competitive team.
And that is pretty much all down to one man - Jorge Mendes. The Portuguese superagent and owner of the Gestifute player agency, has become involved in several clubs across the continent - Atletico Madrid, Valencia, Lazio, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Nottingham Forest, to name just a few - but this summer, it was obvious which club constituted his latest project: Famalicão.
And the origin of that link is really quite clear for all to see when given a little more context. With Famalicão having been taken over by Quantum Pacific Group (QPG) in the summer of 2018, Jorge Mendes was always expected to take a keen interest in the newly-promoted Primeira Liga side this season, with the founder of QPG being Israeli businesman Idan Ofer - who, uncoincidentally, also has a significant 33% share in Spanish giants Atletico Madrid.
Atletico are one of the many clubs that has a strong history of signing Gestifute clients, their most infamous example coming just this summer when Joao Felix swapped Lisbon for Madrid in a stunning 120 million euro move from Benfica.
The two clearly have a very strong professional relationship, and it has really worked a treat, with this summer transfer window representing a complete overhaul of the squad, and drastic changes of the highest order ensued.
We have seen in the past, however, cautionary tales of how mass change in a short space of time can derail a newly promoted side, and regardless of the quality brought in, should they fail to acclimatise to a new club, league or nation rapidly enough, the investment can all fall apart and spell disaster.
Examples from England are most well documented; QPR towards the beginning of the decade pumped significant funds into the club to allow for excessive recruitment, while Fulham only last year dazzled and impressed with their big-money signings, only to finish bottom of the Premier League and immediately return to the Championship.
Famalicão's transfer policy was therefore a significant risk, teetering on the very edge of both success and failure. Thankfully for the Famalicão faithful, it is the former that appears to be the ultimate outcome.
No fewer than 20 players arrived in the August window, in essence an entirely new squad, a huge proportion of those additions also being Jorge Mendes clients.
However, while it could be quite easy to misconstrue such an extensive list of signings as an indication of significant spending and financial backing in the summer window, that was not the case at all. While Mendes is well known for big-money transfers, Famalicao actually barely spent a penny in their recrtuitment, making excellent use of both free transfers and the loan market to construct a highly talented and enthusiastic squad.
Wolverhampton Wanderers duo Pedro Goncalves and Roderick Miranda, for example, both made the trip to the Primeira Liga outfit, the former joining permanently and on a free transfer, and the latter on a season-long loan.
Goncalves has been a particularly spectacular addition; failing to make any sort of impact for the Wolves senior team at 21 years of age, chances of him fulfilling his potential seemed slim, but he has really hit a new gear since returning to Portugal. He is one of the first names on the team sheet every game.
Benfica duo Diogo Goncalves and Guga also arrived at the club, two other examples of Gestifute players, and while it is Diogo that arrived with the bigger reputation, Guga is the one that has been far more prominent in the starting lineup, in part due to the addition of another star left winger - Fabio Martins - keeping Diogo out of the team.
Martins, 26, arrived from Braga on a season-long loan, and was certainly the most prestigious player to move to the club over the summer transfer window, coming with a wealth of first-team experience in the Portuguese league at one of the country’s very best clubs. And he has shown as much so far this campaign, very much leading the side to 1st place in the current standings, already geeting 4 goals and 2 assists across 6 league matches.
There were a raft of other additions too; highly-promising Valencia left-back Alex Centelles was another of the many loan signings, Uros Racic also arriving from the Spanish club, who have built a reputation of having a strong connection to Jorge Mendes. Atletico Madrid, another club Mendes has been associated with over the years, were also the source of a couple of additions, including defensive midfielder Gustavo Assuncao, who has started all of Famalicao’s matches so far this season.
One of the most shrewd signings, though, was Ruben Lameiras. The Tottenham academy product spent last year at English League One outfit Plymouth, impressing down the right-hand side and chipping in with an impressive 11 league goals in the process. However, despite his excellent showings, Plymouth ultimately got relegated to the fourth division of English football at the end of the campaign, opening the door for him to make the move up to the Portuguese top flight.
And, despite having never played in Portugal before, he has settled in very quickly, being one of the stand-out performers of the stand-out side in Portuguese football so far this season.
The mass upheaval didn't stop at the players though, as a change in manager was also deployed. Despite guiding Famalicao to promotion, Carlos Pinto failed to have his contract renewed, and Famalicao instead turned to Marco Silva’s assistant manager Joao Pedro Sousa. In hindsight, a tremendous move.
One of the youngest sides in European Football
In addition to not spending much money over the summer, another aspect of Famalicao’s transfer policy that is more than admirable is their decision to put a great deal faith in youth, making their unlikely place at the pinnacle of Portuguese football even more impressive.
The average age of their first-team squad is just 23; and that’s including their experienced goalkeeper Defendi, who 35 years old. Other than him, only one other player in the first team - right back Lionn - is over the age of 30.
Fabio Martins, aged 26, is therefore certainly one of the most experienced members of the squad, which says all you need to know about how reliant Famalicao are on their collection of youngsters.
That was always believed to potentially be their undoing. While having a very talented team with a great deal of potential, there was always that little bit of doubt as to whether they would be able to have the composure and general know-how to see out matches and earn victories in tense, high-pressure clashes.
That, however, hasn’t been an issue so far, and in their first huge test of the season against Sporting, their second half comeback to earn a 1-2 victory in Lisbon was testament to that.
The average age of their 13 outfielders used over the course of that clash with Sporting was just 22, with teenagers Nehuen Perez (19), Alex Centelles (19) and Gustavo Assuncao (19) all starting the game alongside the likes of Guga (21), Pedro Goncalves (21), Patrick (22) and Toni Martinez (22). Just 22 years of age on average, making them one of the most youthful sides in top flight football across Europe, and yet they are undefeated this campaign, leading the way in Portugal’s top flight.
Can they actually win the league?
That’s likely the question most people are interested in; how far can they go, and can they really go on to win the league? In truth, even the smallest suggestion that a title triumph for Famalicao could be on the cards is absurdly premature and really defies logic. After all, we are just 6 games in, and both Benfica and Porto are already breathing heavily down the necks of the league leader.
In the history of the Portuguese league, only on two occasions has a team outside of Benfica, Porto or Sporting managed to actually win the league - Belenenses all the way back in 1946, and Boavista in 2001.
Suffice to say that any side outside the traditional “Big Three” - let alone a youthful newly-promoted one - winning the Portuguese top flight would constitute a monumental upset, one of the biggest upsets in the entire history of the sport, particularly in this day and age where the established clubs across Europe are generally pulling away from the chasing pack thanks to a significant disparity in financial backing.
Dreaming of Famalicao winning the Primeira Liga is therefore one thing, but expecting it is certainly another.
Nevertheless, this is proving to be nothing close to your ordinary season. With Braga sitting just one point and one place above the relegation zone at this early point in the season, with fewer points than games played, there is a big vacancy to potentially finish at least 4th, while Famalicao are already, after just 6 league games, an incredible 8 points above Sporting CP, who are a team in disarray this season and looking highly unlikely to put up any sort of title challenge this time around.
It means that Famalicao could, actually quite feasibly, earn a 3rd place finish in the league. It is unlikely, and would be a truly exceptional achievement, but is not out of the question with both Braga and Sporting struggling early on. That would be particularly tremendous as it would guarantee Famalicao a place in the Europa League group stage next season.
Vitoria Guimaraes would certainly have something to say about that though, looking strong and hoping to build on their 5th place finish last year, while Carlos Carvalhal’s Rio Ave are also looking strong. You would say that it is between those three for the “Best of the Rest” spot. Whether that will be behind just Benfica and Porto, all of the “Big Three”, or the ‘Big Three + Braga’ remains to be seen, but seeing any of them secure a top 2 finish is beyond difficult to envisage
Therefore, 1st is all but out of the question for Famalicao, 3rd is highly unlikely but not impossible, while top 5 is a realistic target and would represent an incredible achievement for a newly-promoted side, offering a chance to enter the Europa League play-off stage next season.