The evening of Thursday 14 April 2011 was a historic one for Portugal as for the first time three of its teams – FC Porto, SL Benfica and SC Braga – progressed together to the semi-finals of a UEFA competition.
With the country in a difficult moment economically, the UEFA Europa League success of the Liga's current top three offered the Portuguese people 90 minutes of escapism. In the semi-finals, which will take place on 28 April and 5 May, Benfica will meet Braga while Porto play Spain's Villarreal CF.
The nation's three sports newspapers were quick to recognise the achievement, even daring to dream of an all-Portuguese final in Dublin on 18 May. "Football raises self-esteem in a depressed country," wrote A Bola on its front page, under the headline "Portugal's pride".
Leading 4-1 from the first leg against PSV Eindhoven, Benfica were wobbling when their opponents scored twice in the first 25 minutes, yet the Eagles came back to draw. Braga played with ten men for over an hour as they eliminated FC Dynamo Kyiv on away goals in a scoreless return leg. Meanwhile, champions Porto prevailed 10-3 on aggregate after putting five past FC Spartak Moskva for the second time in a week.
"Benfica still gave us a fright", "Braga knew how to suffer" and "Porto are the demolishers again" ran some of the headlines after a set of results that guarantee at least one Liga presence in the Dublin decider – the 15th final involving a Portuguese club.
Another sports daily, Record, observed that "the crisis doesn't live here – Benfica, Porto and Braga show the country how to do it", while trumpeting that "Portugal has a place guaranteed in Dublin". O Jogo, meanwhile, had "Viva Portugal" emblazoned across its front page, adding: "Luisão calms a drifting team [Benfica], the Russians are out with ten goals and the Minho team [Braga] resists with ten."
With tongue somewhat in cheek, Benfica coach Jorge Jesus said the trio's feat shows that "at least football can give us some joy. That's all we have left." Javi García, the Eagles' Spanish midfielder, noted: "It's really great for Portugal to have three teams in the semi-finals of a European competition because that shows the strength of the Portuguese Liga."
The night was long for Braga fans, taking advantage of mild weather to celebrate on the streets of the northern town. Their midfielder Alan said of the drama still to come: "Against Benfica anything is possible, but the important thing is that there will be a Portuguese team in the final."
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