Out in the Atlantic Ocean some 1,408km from Lisbon and 3,900km from New York, the nine islands of Volcanic origin form the Azorean Archipelago. Together with Madeira, the Azores are one of the two autonomous regions of Portugal.
The archipelago is believed to have been discovered around 1427 by Portuguese navigator de Silves, who initially landed on the islands of Santa Maria and Sao Miguel. Five years later, another explorer, Goncalo Velho Cabral, disembarked on Santa Maria with 12 crew members and over the next decade, together with the largest island Sao Miguel they attracted Portuguese and French families who recognized the fertility of the Atlantic island as a place of living and settlement. The production of wheat, sugar cane and oranges led to positive economic growth in the Azores, fuelling a further expansion of the population.
Over the years, the volcanic archipelago’s culture has been crafted from the nearby Portuguese traditions but also its own proud regional identity. It is easy to spot the distinctive Azores flag flying alongside the Portuguese flag. Religion remains at the heart of the Azores island culture, with festivals and celebrations dominating the calendar each year.
Around 246,772 people live on the island territory with the largest groups on the island of São Miguel. Other Islands include Terceira, Graciosa, São Jorge, Pico and Faial while the Western Group which is composed of Corvo and Flores. The islands are characterized by dramatic landscapes, fishing villages, dairy farming, volcanic craters, water springs, picturesque rock formations, green fields and lakes.
Given the location of the Islands, the soil is highly fertile and the seas expansive with a large number of flowers, birds, fish, cattle and whales in the nearby ocean. There are also tea and pineapple plantations in and around Ponta Delgada. Its living past (inhabited since the mid-1400’s) has meant a number of towns and villages are dotted around across the islands with Ponta Delgada being the largest city and a key ship stopping point.
While the islands are better known for whale, bird and dolphin observations (with marine life, in particular, being a huge tourist pull) from the largest city comes the biggest football club – Clube Desportivo Santa Clara, founded in 1927.
Their first official match of the club took place on November 20, 1927. The club play in the 13,277 seated Estádio de São Miguel, an open venue surrounded by green fields and a view to the distant Ponta Delgada to the south-west. To date, CD Santa Clara is the only club from the Azores islands to have competed in the top division of the Portuguese Liga, making them thus the westernmost top-flight club in Europe.
Season 2018-19 may also see Santa Clara once again in the top tier of Portuguese football with the team challenging for promotion from the Segunda Liga.
Santa Clara’s major rivals are another Azores club CD Operário from Lagoa, a town located some 10km east from Ponta Delgada. Clube Operário Desportivo was founded on 2 January 1948 and were a factory team – hence the name ‘workers sports club’. The Board of the nearby factory that overlooks the home ground authorised a works senior football team. They were first known as ‘Fábrica do Álcool’ before later becoming Operário.
CD Santa Clara is known for a close connection to Benfica having shared until recently the very same club badge.
Naturally given the success of the club in senior football there have been many famous players that have played for Santa Clara. Long before Ronaldo came to fame, Portugal’s former all-time leading scorer Pauleta played for the club before finding fame at PSG. Pauleta is also a native of Ponta Delgada returning to the Islands after his career ended and setting up a football school for youngsters.
Across the Azores Islands are a vast array of football pitches, stadia and facilities. On Sao Miguel Island alone there are at least 17 football clubs including some who play in the Taça da Liga cup competition and in the Campeonato de Portugal – the third tier. The current 3rd tier format consists of five series of sixteen teams, arranged according to geographic criteria, with the exception of teams from Madeira and Azores. The clubs from the Azores play in the last two series of leagues with this set up including games against clubs from the mainland.
Only once clubs drop to the district championship (4th tier The Liga Meo Açores) does football become ‘island only’ for the semi-professional local sides.
From small hilltop stadiums to lakeside grassy fields an assortment of football traditions can be seen around the Azores. Most of the clubs are naturally on the larger Sao Miguel and Terceira Islands. This includes a few clubs in the municipality of Angra do Heroismo on Terceira which has a large population of 35,402.
Whether as a place of exile during the Napoleonic Wars or as a refuge for Portuguese Queens, the Azores has a range of UNESCO World Heritage sites. Soon, teams from the top tier of Portuguese football may find a fortnightly trip to the Azores is back on the footballing calendar.