Portuguese minnows looking to emulate Wigan Athletic

It’s quite amazing to think that as recently as the 2006/07 season, FC Arouca were playing regional football – a level similar to England’s Conference – but five years and four promotions later they’re vying for a top-flight berth.

Their story is similar to that of English Premier League side Wigan Athletic. Both clubs hail from small towns in the shadow of big cities housing traditional footballing powerhouses. Wigan, a town in Greater Manchester with a population of just 81,200, and Arouca, a tiny village of just 23,700 inhabitants in the outskirts of Oporto.

Both clubs have also started to steadily climb the leagues thanks to the investment of a local businessman. While Wigan have battled their way from the old Third Division to the Premier League under Dave Whelan, Arouca have thrived thanks to the investment of Carlos Pinho, a wealthy businessman in the construction field who has ploughed money into revitalising the region and the club.

At the beginning of this season Pinho stated that the club wanted to solidify their place in the Portuguese second tier, but the impressive results achieved early on prompted him to consider yet another promotion.

Arouca currently lie in third place with 28 points, just three points shy of second-placed Oliveirense, and to boost their promotion push the club made a very shrewd signing in the January transfer window in former Paços de Ferreira forward Edson Nobre.

Arouca (in yellow) in action against Belenenses on Sunday

Even if they end up achieving ‘only’ a top-half finish, they’ve already assembled a squad with Liga Zon Sagres and Liga Orangina experience that can be the base for success over the next few years.

It will be interesting to see whether or not they can sustain this amazing growth, which considering their challenges seem a rather Herculean task. Rarely has a club from a village been able to flourish in the top flight.

Campomaiorense, the club where Jimmy Hasselbaink first flourished, spent five seasons in the Liga between 1995 and 2001, but were only able to survive thanks to investment from their main sponsor, Delta Cafés. Ultimately, professional football in such a town was deemed unfeasible from an economic point of view and the club withdrew from the professional game following relegation in 2001.

As if possessing both a limited local talent pool and fanbase was not enough of a hindrance, Arouca will find it difficult to successfully cast either net further, with more established Liga Orangina rivals Oliveirense and Feirense on their doorstep.

Furthermore, even with all the razzmatazz surrounding the club at this stage, they have failed to get more punters through the door. Only 608 people attended last weekend’s match against Belenenses - a figure that even Wigan would be disappointed with. While some clubs in the Portuguese top flight register similarly small attendances, most come from bigger cities and therefore receive more money from local authorities or have a better financial backing.

It is difficult to predict whether Arouca will sticking around in the upper-echelons for the long-term. After all, with Portuguese football being choked by the ‘Big Three’ (in terms of gate receipts, TV deals and sponsorship revenues),  most clubs here seem more like non-profit organizations.

Still, if they are really serious about playing in the top tier, Arouca should look to their youth system as an opportunity to build a brighter future.

Not only would this save the club money and provide possible saleable assets, having more local youngsters in the team would create a stronger ‘community feel’ at the club, which would provide another incentive for people to go to the matches.

But for the time being, Arouca probably shouldn’t concern themselves with all these details. They should just be congratulated on their success and encouraged to enjoy the run.

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