The Champions League is no longer the hallowed turf for the heavyweight’s of Europe, with a number of lesser known clubs making their way up to the final thirty two, after coming through the play off rounds. This season, two clubs are on the verge of making history after reaching the so called pearly gates of footballing heaven, the play-off’s.
Shakhter Karagandy of Kazakhstan and Pacos de Ferreira of Portugal.
While Karagandy have become the first team from Kazakhstan to ever take part in any European competition, discounting any appearances during the Soviet era, Pacos de Ferreira are no less of a surprise package from the Liga Sagres. The almost unknown Portuguese side have made their mark in Europe after staving off competition for qualification from former Portuguese underdogs, SC Braga, who themselves made it to the Champions League a few years ago, punching well above their weight.
Shakhter is not an uncommon name for those well acquainted with east European football, with Donetsk of Ukraine being the most famous team to be named similarly. Shakther roughly translates to miners and hence the name for the club, which is located in a region known for it’s coal mines.
Kairat Almaty have been the strongest club in the Kazakhstan Premier League over the years, but Shakhter have made their presence felt after the fall of the Soviet Union and have since won two national titles in successive years. After finishing third in 1995, 2007 and 2009, the Karaganda based club won their first title in 2011 and defended it in 2012. This year though as they pursue top flight European football, they trail regional rivals FC Aktobe by quite a margin.
Karagandy may have not produced a number of heroes over the years but as every regionally known club has its lore, the miners have their own stories to tell. The legend of Nikolai Igamberdiev is one such story who scored a record 182 goals in the 70s and early 80s. But since that would be a tale of days past, there is yet another immortal at the club today, Andrei Finonchenko.
Finonchenko is a one club man and has spent his entire career at Karagandy, being born in the same city. At 31 years of age, he captains his hometown side and has also scored 116 goals over the years. Andrei Finonchenko also has 11 caps for the national team, scoring 2 goals for his country. Speaking to UEFA.com, he said, “Like many Karagandy boys I dreamed of playing for Shakhter. I was a trainee, a ball boy, then when I got into the first team I realised I wanted to change the club. I had offers from elsewhere but money is not the most important thing in life. There have been good and bad times, but I thank destiny I’m here.”
Shakhter’s squad mainly taps the local talent pool, while also bringing in some imports from nearby Belarus, Serbia and Armenia. Their top scorer’s this season are Sergey Khizhnichenko and Roger Canas who have netted nine goals apiece. In the mid-season, they have also brought in a new front-man, Igor Zenkovich, who bagged nine goals in twelve games for his former club, Akzhayik.
Shakhter have already rung the bells for Neil Lennon’s boys at Celtic, that they are no pushovers and they will give what it takes to make history. En route to the play-off’s the Kazakh’s have defeated BATE Borisov, 3-0 on aggregate and then eliminated Albanian side, Korce, 5-3 on aggregate. A clean sheet against Borisov, home and away, and at home to Korce, clearly imply that a neat defense assembled by coach, Viktor Kumykov, means business this season.
SC Braga recently had their revenge for missing out on last years Champions League spot to FC Pacos de Ferreira, as they defeated them by a 2-0 scoreline. Well, that’s all there is to the tale of a club who had been running with the giants all season long last year and managed a podium finish at the end of it all.
While the entire of Portugal was fixated by the usual spectacle of Benfica and Porto wrestling it out at the top of the Liga Sagres, Pacos quietly managed to hold their grip onto third place and a Champions League play-off, staving off competition from local rivals, SC Braga who had to settle for fourth place.
The meteoric rise of Pacos from under the shadows of local rivals Braga, Boavista and Porto, and on to Europe’s biggest scene certainly deserves some amount of praise. Participating in the Champions League for the first time, will forever change the reputation of FC Pacos in the history of Portuguese football.
About 35 km away from Oporto, the home of the illustrious Porto FC, is the small town of Pacos de Ferreira, which is known famously as the ‘Capital of Furniture’. With a population of under 10,000 (according to a 2001 census), it is quite an anomaly that a club from a town of such diminutive proportions find themselves pitted against one of the giants of Russian football, Zenit St. Petersburg. Known fondly as ‘The Beavers’, this is the first time in the club’s history, that they have bettered a previous finish of sixth in the Portuguese league.
Compared to other clubs in Portugal, Pacos are relatively nascent after being officially born in 1950, though they had previously competed under various other aliases. It was only in the 1990/91 season, after 41 years, that the Beavers won the Segunda Liga and were promoted to the top rung. Another demotion in 1994, saw them away from the Portuguese Liga, until they were promoted back in 2001.
After the turn of the millennium, Pacos continued to show more stability as they finished 9th, 8th and then 6th in back-to-back seasons. Under coach Paulo Fonseca, they managed a best ever finish of 6th in the 2011/12 season. But the club with such modest beginnings had an even more modest plan for 2012/13. 38 points and guaranteed top flight safety was all that the coach had earmarked for a season that would be remembered forever by their fans. Pacos guaranteed their Champions League play-off status last season with a game to spare, only after SC Braga slumped to a home defeat at the last moment.
Over the course of the 2012/13 season, Pacos have won 14, drawn 12 and lost only 4 matches. The four defeats came at home and away to giants, Porto and Benfica. Pacos’s most famous win was a 1-0 win over fallen giants Sporting Lisbon. Another famous battle would be a 3-2 away win over local rivals, SC Braga. In the entire while, Pacos’s dominant run came at the expense of established teams like Boavista and Maritimo.
Fonseca employed an aggressive brand of attacking football, often deploying the XI in a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1 throughout the season. The key players of the squad included holding midfielder, Andre Leao, who was partnered by the more creative Vitor. This was augmented up-front by the form of striker, Cicero, while 22-year old Peruvian winger, Paolo Hurtado has impressed since signing from Alianza Lima. The Peruvian scored 8 goals in 25 league appearances. Even the contributions of young forward, Caetano deserve a mention.
Such was the gusto of the team, that departing coach, Paulo Fonseca, took midfielder, Josue, with him to Porto, while Luiz Carlos was nicked away by SC Braga on a free transfer.
Fonseca has since been replaced by former Porto star, Costinha, who manages the team with former midfield partner, Maniche. Costinha was a part of Jose Mourinho’s 2004 Champions League team and is reportedly a big hit among the players at the Mata Real, after taking over the reins from Fonseca this season. His ‘aesthetic’ brand of football have lured Pacos into trusting him with the club’s ambitions, even though his former charges, SC Beira-Mar were relegated last season.
In Zenit St. Petersburg, Pacos have an opponent of immeasurable proportions, who will come to Portugal with the almighty, in-form Hulk and Andrey Arshavin in their ranks. Also a harsh trip to the ever hostile Petersburg will be a mammoth task for a team who have rarely ventured outside of Portugal. A win would see them through into the heaven of football, while a defeat would confine them to a long, winding Europa League campaign.
With a budget of under £3.5 million and a stadium with a capacity of barely 6000, they are indeed punching above their weight, making Pacos de Ferreira the one team you would want to cheer for during the otherwise drab and seemingly inconsequential play-off’s.