Football Islands – Madeira

Some of the most westerly league football clubs in Europe come from Madeira. Amongst the clubs within the two top tiers of the Portuguese league system only CD Santa Clara from the Azores Islands sit further west but at the moment they are in the Segunda Liga.

Read many guide books and Madeira is ‘somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean’. These are a group of very safe small islands that sit 520 km west of the African coast nearly 1,000 km from the European continent.  With outstanding landscapes and a mild climate all year round these are peaceful islands which are the ideal destination for people of all age groups whether to invigorate or relax.

The capital is Funchal, the birthplace of Cristiano Ronaldo, and with its mix of old buildings and nature trips provides a perfect setting to explore the rest of this small island.

Three sides from Madeira currently play in the Primeira Liga of Portuguese football.  Of those (Nacional, Unaio and Club Sport Marítimo) it’s the Funchal clubs of CD Nacional and Marítimo that are the most high profile having competed in the group stages of the UEFA Europa League.

Madeira had been discovered by the Portuguese in 1419 and the capital Funchal remains the principal city of the autonomous region.  The region includes the main islands of Madeira and Porto Santo, the latter of which can be reached by a daily cruise ship departing from Funchal harbour.  Completing the set are the little known Desertas Islands a chain of three long narrow islands which are no more than little rocks in the ocean which stretch over a north/south distance of 22.3 kilometres.

Madeira has its own government, dialect and legislative assembly and there are many inhabitants who want it to ‘go alone’ such are the feelings towards Madeira rather than Portugal.  Since the year of 2000 the Lisbon government has cut its annual expenditure on the islands by over a third and some regional politicians speak regularly of its rich potential for ‘self sufficiency’.

However, as with everything in life there are two sides to every story. Madeira was founded by the Portuguese and its first inhabitants hailed from the north of the mainland.  Thanks to the thriving year round tourist scene this is a prosperous island with a small population who in general are equally proud of both local and national Portuguese traditions.

While you do see the blue-gold-blue vertical triband flag in Funchal (the flag of Madeira) the national red and green Portuguese flag bandeira de Portugal is never far away. In the shops around Funchal it’s the Portuguese national team shirt with Ronaldo on that back that is on sale and it’s a local from Madeira (the same Ronaldo) who currently captains the Portuguese national team.

Such is the extent to which Ronaldo dominates the national team he may well go on to attain 160 caps and score 75 international goals by the time his career with the national team comes to a close.  It’s now almost certain he will go down in history with his name mentioned alongside legends like Pele, Di Stefano and Maradona.

Now a modern city with numerous buildings and legacy fortifications that mark its naval and maritime history, many  Funchal neighbourhoods rise cloud high at almost 1,200 metres (3,900 ft) with many neighbourhoods reached along a succession of winding streets towards picturesque hilltops.

Sub tropical with a lot of rain the island of Madeira has built more than 1,000 miles of irrigation channels over the years and innovative drainage systems are noticeable. And, while a challenge, there are footpaths that snake around never ending botantic gardens to the top of this diverse island.

CD Nacional

On Funchal seafront a statue of Cristiano Ronaldo stands and in the backdrop is the expanse of his home city – Funchal.  Also in the backdrop, high on a hilltop overlooking the city, is the home of one of his former clubs CD Nacional.

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Ronaldo’s first club – CF Andorinha

Founded in 1910 CD Nacional were actually Ronaldo’s second football club.  The young Ronaldo grew up in the poorer district of Santo Antonio and started playing for the local amateur team CF Andorinha at the age of 8.

Then in 1995 he signed with CD Nacional, and in doing so turning down advances from Marítimo seemingly at the request of an uncle who had ties to Nacional.

At the grand Nacional club offices on Ruo do Esmeraldo, deep in the centre of Funchal, there is a famous image of a young Ronaldo in the black and white kit of Nacional.  At Nacional the fast growing Ronaldo excelled for its youth sections and soon word got around about a boy from Madeira. A three-day trial with Sporting Lisbon ended with the 12 year old signing for the Lisbon giants where he would play less than 30 games before Manchester United came calling.

Currently playing in the Portuguese Primera Liga, home games are played at the hilltop Estádio da Madeira some 2km from the often visited Funchal Botanic Gardens. Built in 1998 and named at the time the Estádio Eng. Rui Alves after club president Rui Alves, it is a modest home that has been developed recently and has space for approximately 5,100 fans.

The selling point of the stadium is in its distinct location which is high in the north of Funchal with floodlights regularly touching the clouds.  The stadium sits at the very top of one of the many roads that snake through endless green landscapes. It sits in the mountains of the Choupana district and, while it can be atmospheric and noisy when full, crowds tend to average 3-4,000 even for the larger clashes against Benfica and Sporting. The hilltop location stops some fans attending with Nacional regulars the most common feature come game day.

The local fans are passionate. Unlike the nearby Botanic Gardens this is no tranquil refuge for visiting teams especially when hated rivals Marítimo come to play in the big Madeira derby match.

Outside of the emotive historical ties to local boy Ronaldo (the club recently built an academy campus in name of its most famous player – the Cristiano Ronaldo Campus Futebol) the greatest achievement was beating Zenit St Petersburg in 2009 – a win that helped the club reach the group stages of the Europa League.

Club Sport Marítimo

Founded on 20 September 1910 as Club Português de Sport Marítimo the club play in the red and green colours of the flag of Portugal. However, the modern emblem of the club is a lion inside a ships wheel, the lion used to symbolise the dominant status of the club on Maderia.

Like other clubs from outlying football island locations travel from the barren expanse of the Atlantic Ocean to the reaches of the mainland before the 1950’s was logistically difficult and nearly impossible.  While always noted as a hotbed of Portuguese football (the first organized game in Portugal took place during 1875 in central Madeira) the years between 1934 and 1972 saw football clubs from Madeira excluded from the main national Portuguese championships.  Large discrepancies in terms of travel infrastructure and football organisation meant that there was a divide between the regional and national realities of football competition.

Numerous years of regionalism saw Marítimo dominate Madeira’s regional football scene yet the club were often successful when invited to the mainland.  The years before and after the war saw Maritimo play in national competition as regional representatives.  Once on the mainland they would compete against the likes of FC Porto, Benfica and Sporting.  Since being involved in modern Portuguese league football, the club have twice reached the cup final (Taca de Portugal) and were also runner-up in the secondary cup competition (Taça da Liga).

Once run down, crumbling and home to the biggest football networks on the island, the Estádio dos Barreiros is now a fast developing modern football only ground with colour coded seating. By the end of the first quarter of 2016 it will have four stands able to hold upwards of 10,000 fans as well as modern turnstile entry points and new VIP areas.

Thanks to local government patronage the more ageing structures of the ground have long gone (an athletics track and bowl shaped surrounds are a thing of the past) and it is no longer an open stadium. Once known as the Caldeirão (Cauldron) throughout Portugal the stadium has newly painted grand exteriors with a gated entry point topped with lions.

União da Madeira

The 2014-2105 season sees Marítimo and Nacional joined in the Portuguese top tier (Primeira Liga/Liga NOS) by another club from Madeira called União da Madeira.

União are actually one of the oldest clubs in Portugal having been founded in 1913 and they also have a successful track record in both local and national football.  However, until the recent promotion it had been 20 years since they last played in the top league.

The club do not play in the capital of Funchal and instead are located at the Estádio do Centro Desportivo da Madeira which is in Ribeira Brava, a small town approximately 20 minutes drive west of the capital. Competing with the neighbouring giants from Funchal is not easy, and neither is the inaccessibility of the stadium even when using public transport.  Attendances tend to be small for home matches even against the likes of Benfica and FC Porto where local fans of the visitors can be in the majority.

You can see some images from my time in Madeira here.