Way out west

Santa Clara, the leading club from the Azores, are the most westerly team competing in top division European football. Europe United features a second-tier match Santa Clara played at Varzim, overlooking a very different stretch of the Atlantic, in March 2018 and the Azoreans were promoted to the Portuguese Primeira Liga two months later. I headed way out west to visit this footballing outpost.

Time moved fast. The clock on the church in the handsome main square of Ponta Delgada, the capital of this island chain, sped through the hours at pace. The DJ at the adjacent Raiz bar countered the lunatic minute hand with an airing of the languid ‘Sultans of Swing’ by Dire Straits. It was an unusual scene, but the Azores are the unique setting for this most remote of football clubs.

The Azores are a beautiful archipelago strung out in contorted shapes in the middle of the Atlantic. The largest island of São Miguel, twice the size of the Isle of Wight, is long and thin, like a caterpillar strewn in the sea, its volcanic peaks revealing magical views. The lush sub-tropical vegetation is criss-crossed by undulating roads lined with dense concentrations of hydrangeas. One of these roads leads to the Estadio do São Miguel, home to the island’s overachieving football club.

Watching Santa Clara play was a more compelling reason to visit this green island than a dubious nightspot. I strolled into the car park, strewn with dark volcanic rocks and chanced upon a mobile food truck with a queue. The friendly owner stuffed a soft roll full of delicious chorizo, pork slabs and bacon dressed in a special sauce. I approached a man wearing a Santa Clara away shirt who looked ripe for a football chat. He pointed to his bearded son, João, clad in a Thor t-shirt and sinking one-euro Especial beers in preparation for the tee-total match experience. As I found last year, beer is not sold at any Portuguese matches.

“This is the best, this is the original” said João about the food outlet, a staple since Santa Clara’s second-tier days. Santa Clara, save a few seasons around the turn of the millennium which spawned an unlikely Intertoto Cup adventure after finishing fourteenth in 2002, had mostly been a lower league side. João’s favourite memory was their opening match last season against Braga, perennially the fourth best team in Portugal. Santa Clara turned around a three-goal half-time deficit to draw 3-3. “It showed that we are game” said João, using a great turn of phrase.

English is well spoken in the Azores, reflecting the Portuguese persona more than the handful of direct flights from northern European and North America. The Portuguese strive to develop their language skills and the Azoreans work even harder for the same opportunities as those from mainland Portugal. It is perhaps no coincidence that none of the top three international goal scorers in Portugal’s history are from the mainland: Ronaldo is a native of Madeira, the island to the south east of the Azores, Pauleta hails from Ponta Delgada and his PSG shirt is still proudly worn by Azoreans, whilst Eusébio was born in Mozambique. João explained that “elders say that we in the Azores come ‘from the basalt’ and that is why we are a strong people”.

His football club reflected this island’s hard-working population. João believed that Santa Clara’s promotion was not that surprising as, in true Azorean style, the club had pursued their dream to compete with the top clubs for over a decade. Santa Clara now has an annual budget of around three million euros, a third from sponsorship to promote the Azores on their shirts. The partly government-owned Azores Airlines also assists with the club’s considerable travel expenses – Santa Clara fly the two-hour journey between Ponta Delgada and continental Europe thirty-two times in the league alone.

The owner of João’s favourite food truck offered free samples from a frying pan. The food in the Azores is simple and fresh, drawing on seafood from its enviable location and excellent beef from its free-roaming cows. A surprising speciality, available in many restaurants but not this stadium car park, is tart locally-grown pineapple served with blood sausage, as blackened as the volcanic rock.

I walked across to the stadium, set low amidst conical hills with giant fir trees looming over the verdant arena. AC/DC rocked the stadium before the match but, as João had predicted, this was not a raucous occasion. The moans and beats from a small group of bare-chested Armada Vermelha ultras were a notable exception. ‘Santa’ chanted the main stand, ‘Clara’ responded the cheap seats opposite. Lincoln, one of a clutch of Brazilians in the Santa Clara squad, side-stepped a defender to assist Zé Manuel. The home side never looked like losing their lead, especially after a second was flicked in by a visiting Moreirense defender. Santa Clara’s fans drove away content, if not over-celebratory.

I was back in the Raiz bar for my final night in the Azores. The clock now told the correct time and the minute hand progressed to plan. Gaggles of tourists congregated on the balcony to avoid a noise unholier than anything heard at the stadium – experimental acid jazz out of kilter with the sedate atmosphere. I gazed at the black and white stones that distinguish Ponta Delgada’s streets and longed for another rendition of ‘Sultans of Swing’. And hoped this island’s football club could avoid running into their own dire straits.

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