The upcoming UEFA EURO 2004™ finals have enhanced the sense of anticipation as the Portuguese season begins this weekend.
With the whole infrastructure of Portuguese football in the process of refurbishment for the UEFA European Championship next summer, the soccer-loving nation has plenty to look forward to.
FC Porto won the UEFA Cup last time out, and with ten new stadiums due for completion by the end of the season, the traditional rivalry between the big three of Porto, SL Benfica and Sporting Clube de Portugal has assumed a new dimension.
Porto's unforgettable 2002/03 campaign - they won the treble of UEFA Cup, SuperLiga and Portuguese Cup - makes them many people's title favourites. While season's top scorer Hélder Postiga has left for Tottenham Hotspur FC, and Nuno Capucho joined Rangers FC, coach José Mourinho has managed to strengthen his squad.
The masterful Deco is still around, and five new signings - Bosingwa from Boavista FC, Pedro Mendes from Vitória SC, Ricardo Fernandes from Sporting, Serginho and Benni McCarthy from RC Celta de Vigo - have been added to the mix.
The challenge for Porto's rivals will be an immense one, but after a relatively quiet close season, Benfica's Spanish coach José António Camacho may have the best chance of taking the title back to Lisbon.
Having released a few fringe players, Benfica have made just one major signing - Alex from Moreirense FC - and have international class in Nuno Gomes, Simão, Tiago and mercurial Slovenian Zlatko Zahovic.
Sporting, by contrast, have lost several stars with Ricardo Quaresma joining FC Barcelona and Cristiano Ronaldo heading to Manchester United FC. New coach Fernando Santos has been busy trying to find adequate replacements.
Sporting have thus acquired Brazilians Anderson Polga and Fábio Rochenback, from Grêmio FBPA and Barcelona respectively, as well as Boavista's Elpídeo Sílva and Clayton from Porto. National-team goalkeeper Ricardo from Boavista and FC Paços de Ferreira right-back Mário Sérgio may also prove valuable additions.
Sporting had a difficult 2002/03 and will be well aware that Boavista, Vitória, UD Leiria, CF Marítimo, Os Belenenses SDF and SC Braga all have designs on a place in the top three, despite limited transfer activity.
At the bottom of the 18-team top flight, newly promoted CF Estrela da Amadora, Alverca Futebol SAD and Rio Ave FC could struggle along with Moreirense, CD Nacional and AA Coimbra. However, with several clubs in financial trouble, there could yet be surprises at the wrong end of the table.
Hope from Scolari
Moreover, players from smaller clubs have been given extra reason to do well by Portugal coach Luiz Felipe Scolari. The Brazilian has been keen to prove that it is not necessary to play for one of the big three in Portugal to win a place in the national team.
With a place in the squad for next summer's finals perhaps the highest prize on offer for any player in the coming season, supporters will have plenty of excellent football to tide them over as they await the biggest sporting event in their country's history.
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