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“We won because we were the best,” exclaimed manager Jaime Pacheco after Boavista’s 3-0 defeat of Aves on 5 May 2001 guaranteed his club the first championship in its history.

In most countries and most leagues, a statement such as this probably wouldn’t carry the same weight that it does in Portugal. This is due to the fact that since the creation of the Primeira Liga in 1934 only five teams have won the title. Throughout the competition’s entire existence, one of Os Tres Grandes (The Big Three), which consists of Benfica, Sporting Club and Porto, have gone into every season with an already firm grip on the trophy.

In fact, before Boavista, the last team outside of these three to win the title was Os Belenenses, which came all the way back in 1946. The Lisbon-based side took advantage of a post-war lull in the power of the big three to snatch the championship. But from then onwards the traditional powers were all-conquering; they didn’t concede the top spot at all for the rest of the 20th century.

Their greater support, bigger stadiums, better facilities and overall superior financial might made it nearly impossible for other clubs to launch any kind of sustained challenge that could break their dominance. Boavista’s achievement is historic due not only to its rarity but also because in Portugal, the gap between the best and the rest is wider and deeper than in any other national league competition in the world. Boavista didn’t just climb a mountain when they won the league in 2001; they jumped a canyon and then climbed a mountain.

Before winning the title in 2001, Boavista was most famous for its quirky chessboard patterned strip, from which they get their Axadrezados (Chequered Ones) nickname. For the longest time, the club was stuck in the dark and extensive shadow of its illustrious city neighbour, Porto. In addition to this, it had a reputation for being something of a stepping-stone club and an auxiliary academy to the big three. Often it would have it’s best players or rising stars poached by bigger clubs: Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, and Nuno Gomes are some examples of players who would go on to have prominent careers after time at the Estádio do Bessa.

As with most stories like this, Boavista’s begins with an eccentric and ambitious chairman. In 1997, João Eduardo de Loureiro – previously known for being the lead singer of a pop band – took control of the club from his retiring father Valentim. His father  – a former soldier who was more of an old school political style chairman – had done a fine job of turning Boavista into a mainstay of the league, but under his tenure the club had always failed in its final ambition of turning the big three into a big four.

The enthusiastic younger Loureiro, eager to succeed where his father had not, immediately set about dragging the club up the league and upsetting the status quo. One of his first steps was to appoint ex-Porto midfielder and Portugal captain Jaime Pacheco as manager. The tenacious Pacheco arrived in December during the 1997/98 season with a reputation as a promising young manager whose character made him a great motivator and one who could get the best out of underperforming or underrated players. Imagine a Portuguese Tony Pulis, both in looks and personality.

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He inherited a team in poor form. Winning the Taça do Portugal in 1997 meant that a lot of the squad’s best players had been snared. In particular, the losses of their most influential players, in the mercurial Bolivian midfielder Erwin Sánchez – nicknamed ‘Platini’ due to sharing a similar playing style to the French legend – to Benfica and the previous season’s top scorer, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, who left for Leeds, had greatly impacted the side.

However, the squad was also full of young homegrown talents and big three discards with a point to prove, such as goalkeeper Ricardo, a name familiar to England fans thanks to Euro 2004, future Champions League winning central defender Pedro Emmanuel, and midfielders Rui Bento and Jorge Couto.

Pacheco managed to motivate the squad’s underperformers and added an industry to the team that had gone missing during the season. A hard-working team ethic was the cornerstone of Pacheco’s footballing philosophy and they played a potent role in bringing fortune to the Estádio do Bessa. At times, Pacheco had been compared to an army sergeant and he used all of his organisational skills to turn Boavista into one of the biggest grafters in Europe. Fabio Capello himself famously said of the team: “No other club in Europe runs as much.”

The 1998/99 season was Pacheco’s first full campaign in charge, and it would be the first time that Boavista delivered a blow to the big three. Club legend Sánchez returned after an unsuccessful and acrimonious stint at Benfica and he immediately re-established himself in his favoured central midfield spot. Tactically, Pacheco alternated between 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 formations; and he implemented a style that although based around pace, energy and physicality, also allowed flair players like Sánchez and winger Martelinho to flourish.

Pacheco and Sanchez inspired Boavista to a runners-up finish behind rivals Porto as they took advantage of a dip in form from the Lisbon-based giants of Sporting and Benfica. The season’s successes meant that Boavista also entered the following season’s Champions League at the third qualifying round.

The 1999/2000 season saw a dip for the Porto-based side, the extra demands of playing in the Champions League meaning they were unable to match the domestic exploits of the previous season. This, coupled with the resurgence in the form of the Lisbon sides, meant that Boavista finished the season propping up fourth place, once again in the shadow of the big three.

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On the European front, the side also struggled to impress. They managed to progress to the group phase thanks to a memorable 6-3 aggregate defeat of Brøndby. In the group stage they were drawn with Feyenoord, Rosenberg and Borussia Dortmund, but Boavista were overwhelmed by the extra step up in class.

They lost their first game to Rosenberg in a 3-0 home defeat and failed to win at all until beating Dortmund 1-0 at home in their final game. While disappointing for Boavista, manager Pacheco now knew the challenges that being a top European club entailed. The season was a major learning curve and undoubtedly the experience gained was an important factor in the forthcoming season.

The 2000/01 season was the pinnacle; it was the season in which Boavista went from being one of the rest to the best of the best. It was a hard-fought campaign and Porto pushed them all the way, with the championship only being settled in the penultimate game of the season, meaning an Oporto derby title decider was avoided. Throughout the season, Os Axadrezados were noted for their balanced tactical approach. Pacheco kept faith with the systems he had installed in previous seasons and it truly paid dividends.

By the end of the season, Boavista had conceded fewer goals than any other side, the watertight defence letting 21 goals slip through. They were no slouches offensively either, netting a total of 63 times, second only to Porto. Even more remarkable was the fact that most of their goals came from a variety of different positions; their top scorer that season was striker Duda with just 11.

Ultimately, the championship was decided in the penultimate game as the famous victory over Aves meant that Porto could not close the four-point gap that Boavista had secured over them. Porto battered Boavista 3-0 in the final game of the season, but to the supporters of the Chequered Ones, this did not matter: they had achieved the unachievable and they had bested their crosstown rivals whilst doing it. Wild celebrations ensued and cries of the Boavista’s anthem could be heard all across the city.

Over the course of the following two seasons, Boavista maintained their challenge to the big three but not with the same degree of success; they finished as runners-up in 2001/02 and had a more successful Champions League campaign than previously. This time they managed to proceed to the second group phase stage and showed a good account of themselves against the likes of Liverpool, Bayern Munich and Manchester United before going out of the tournament.

The 2002/03 season would be the closest the club came to achieving success on the European front as Boavista managed to reach the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup before being knocked out at home by Martin O’Neill’s Celtic thanks to a 79-minute goal from Henrik Larsson. Unfortunately, it prevented the possibility of an all-Oporto final as José Mourinho’s all-conquering Porto team had manged to advance from the other semi-final.

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Sadly, the solid performances in Europe masked the rot that had already started to set in at Boavista. A decision to build a new stadium for Euro 2004 and the Portuguese Football Federation reneging on their promise to deliver funds for part of the project left the club in serious financial peril. This, together with the loss of key players in Pedro Emanuel and Petit, meant that their domestic form suffered greatly over the season and in the end, they finished in 10th.

The final nail in the coffin came in 2004 when Pacheco was let go and replaced by his former captain Erwin Sánchez. But even Sánchez was unable to turn around the club’s fortunes as they found themselves in familiar territory with a series of mid-table finishes.

Worse came in 2008 when they were relegated to the second tier due to their role in the Apito Dourado (Golden Whistle) scandal, with the club accused of intimidating referees into giving them favourable decisions. Part of the outcome meant that João Loureiro was banned from participating in football and subsequently had to step down as president. In 2009 disaster struck again as the club were relegated to the third tier for the first time in 41 years.

In 2014, the Primera Liga expanded, allowing two further teams to join the league. A court case had overturned Boavista’s prior punishment and they were accordingly invited back into the top division. Furthermore, in 2013 Loureiro rejoined the club and started his second spell as president, managing to make a deal with the club’s creditors, which saw its debts halved.

To the surprise of many, Boavista managed to retain their status as a top division side after being reinstated for the 2014/15 season. Since then, the club has started to grow again; attendances have gradually increased, performances have improved, the club has become more stable and it is starting to finish higher up in the league, looking ahead to top-half finishes

Since Boavista won the title, the big three have reassumed their positions as the dominant forces in the league. Braga, on a couple of occasions, unsettled the status quo with third and second-placed finishes – mostly due to the help of Jorge Mendes and the failings at Sporting – but they have failed in making the final step to a league victory. Moreover, since Sporting’s appointment of Jorge Jesus, the big three’s stranglehold over the league is as strong as it has ever been, and the league and fans have become accustomed to the alternating title swapping between Benfica and Porto.

Times have been tough for fans of Os Axadrezados since the dizzying heights of 2001, and even the most exceptionally positive of fans would concede that their chances of returning to the top are slim. But ask any Boavista fan about that special season and the Jaime Pacheco era, and with a wide grin they’ll surely respond by telling you that Oporto looked better when it was dressed in white and black 

By Dan Parry    @thelinesmanblog