Portugal hopes Europa final hails new golden era

LISBON Mon May 16, 2011 12:08pm IST

Porto's Walter Silva (L) celebrates with team mate Silvestre Varela their goal against Maritimo during their Portuguese Premier League soccer match at Barreiros stadium in Madeira Island May 14, 2011. REUTERS/Duarte Sa

Porto's Walter Silva (L) celebrates with team mate Silvestre Varela their goal against Maritimo during their Portuguese Premier League soccer match at Barreiros stadium in Madeira Island May 14, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Duarte Sa

LISBON (Reuters) - An all-Portuguese Europa League final on Wednesday has raised hopes in the country that this will not just be a one-off and its clubs can consistently threaten the wealthier leagues' grip on the big prizes.

Portugal, whose economic woes are well-documented, has long been forced to export its plentiful top talent to bigger leagues, leaving its clubs making only infrequent forays to European finals.

Porto and Braga's presence in the final in Dublin, together with Benfica's run to the last four, may signal a change.

"This marks the culmination of an extraordinary season for Portuguese teams and underlines how competitive our football is in a demanding international context," said Fernando Gomes, head of the Portuguese League.

"May we all take the right lessons from this," he added.

Portugal coach Paulo Bento said part of the lesson has to be giving opportunities to young coaches like Porto's Andre Villas Boas and Braga's Domingos.

"For them to be at a European final is good for Portugal and helps destroy a negative myth about young coaches," he said.

After Benfica's two European Cups in the 1960s, over two decades passed until Porto's win in 1987 and then another 16 years before Jose Mourinho bagged the UEFA Cup and then the Champions League the next season for the northern club.

But Mourinho then left for Chelsea, with key players like Deco and Ricardo Carvalho also departing to richer leagues.

That led to another dry spell which lasted until this season. Whether the clubs can repeat or improve on the success is yet to be seen, but last week offered some positive signs.

Villas Boas, reportedly the object of interest from several top European sides, said his future is tied to Porto, while Domingos will leave Braga but is widely expected to join a re-building exercise at Sporting.

Another key to sustained strength could be retaining up-and-coming players from South America to stop the country from being a short stopover on the way to Spain or England.

Porto's challenge in a Champions League next season would be hugely enhanced if they succeed in their effort to keep Colombia striker Radamel Falcao and Brazilian forward Hulk.

Benfica are likely to invest after missing out on the final, while Braga's remarkable season on a shoestring budget has rewarded them with the funds to continue impressing.

(Editing by Mark Meadows; To query or comment on this story email sportsfeedback@thomsonreuters.com)

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