PaAi??os de Ferreira lost 4-1 to Zenit in their Champions League debut, a result that only epitomizes the extreme lack of depth in Portuguese football.

This past midweek, PaAi??os de Ferreira made their debut in Champions League football, in the playoff round, and they got quite the welcome as Zenit beat them 4-1 in Portugal rather easily. The difference in quality was just too evident and too much to overcome for Costinha’s side. It was also a match that revealed the current state of Portuguese football quite well: PaAi??os finished third last season but at no point did they pose any threat to Benfica or Porto. In fact, Porto visited them in the last day of the season needing a win to clinch the title and no one really believed PaAi??os were going to stop them, and so they didn’t. It is also relevant to mention that PaAi??os hosted Zenit in Porto’s stadium, since their own stadium doesn’t have nearly the conditions required for a Champions League match.

With Sporting in crisis lately and the overall level of the league dipping significantly, being third in the Portuguese league right now just means being the better side in a really weak bunch. Porto won the league unbeaten for the second time in three years last season (only one defeat in the past three seasons) and Benfica only really lost the one match away at Porto. Braga have been defying the odds for a while, replacing Sporting as the third big force temporarily, but their resources are too poor for them to consistently challenge year after year. Even with Sporting showing signs of resurgence early on the new season, that doesn’t hide the real problems Portuguese football is facing; Sporting getting themselves back together would only make three teams, instead of two, completely dominating the competition week after week.

The rest of the pack have weakened so much over the years that it’s not outlandish at all to suggest that the difference between 4th/5th place and the relegated teams in terms of quality is pretty marginal; in fact, very few in Portugal would be surprised if PaAi??os ended up being relegated this season now that the wave of form and confidence they rode last season is gone. Having to play at least 6 Europa League matches after inevitably being eliminated from the Champions League won’t help their cause either, considering their very thin squad.

But where exactly did it all go wrong for the Portuguese league? It has always been one of the most top heavy leagues in Europe, but never to this absolutely ridiculous extent. Before Porto in 2011, there had never been an unbeaten champion, now it happened twice in three years, the quality of European performances from teams apart from the Big 3 has also been very poor, Braga aside. Part of it is a result of Portugal being a very small market and the league just not being able to generate nearly enough revenue to compete with the biggest leagues in Europe. But poor organization must also be blamed; the revenue that is generated is very poorly distributed, with the biggest clubs getting the lion share of it of course, and there’s very little support given to the clubs, who are struggling to pay wages to players for the most part, let alone having the means to build competitive teams.

The top Portuguese teams have had some decent results in the Champions League over the years and great results in the Europa League, but that doesn’t mask the state the league currently finds itself in. Even a lot of people in Portugal find themselves paying more attention to top foreign leagues over their own league, because truth be told there’s not much to follow. Week after week, teams will park the bus against the top 2/3, rarely with any success; there will be some quality matches of course, but overall the product offered is just not very appealing. Benfica and Porto manage to remain relatively competitive in Europe due to their quite extraordinary scout networks finding young talents especially in South America and later on selling them for exorbitant fees, but even that is not guaranteed to continue. The league has in dire need of a shake-up, restructuration from top to bottom – otherwise teams like PaAi??os de Ferreira getting beaten up badly in Europe will continue to be the norm.

Portugal might be currently 5th and about to go up to 4th in the UEFA country rankings, but that in no way represents the overall strength of the league; it does represent the good performance of the top Portuguese teams in the past few years – especially in the Europa League, where Porto have won the title, Benfica and Braga reached a final and Sporting a semifinal – but they hide an inescapable reality of a tremendously uncompetitive league, financial struggles/delayed wages – an overall product that makes the Portuguese league a mere afterthought as far as European leagues are concerned.

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