Braga end half a century of suffering to lift Portuguese Cup with Porto win
Some things only happen every 50 years. In a remarkable coincidence, Sporting Braga lifted their second Portuguese Cup exactly half a century after the first triumph, at the very same venue. Led by magnificently named Rui Sim-Sim, Braga beat Vitoria Setubal 1-0 at Estadio Nacional on May 22, 1966. They returned on May 22, 2016 to do it again in a thriller, overcoming FC Porto on penalties following a pulsating and unpredictable 2-2 draw.
It was a moment to savour, especially for new Portugal president Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa -- a hugely popular figure who won the elections by a landslide margin in January and a self-confessed die-hard Braga fan -- who presented the trophy to his side. De Sousa was just a 17 when Os Arsenalistas celebrated their previous major success, and now he was the central figure at the ceremony.
History was against Braga as they have lost four cup finals since 1977. The most heartbreaking defeat took place last season, when they outplayed Sporting Lisbon and deservedly led 2-0 with six minutes to go before a huge mistake allowed Islam Slimani to score, and Fredy Montero hit a dramatic equaliser deep into injury time. Demoralised, Braga missed three penalties in the shootout and were left empty handed again.
That was supposed to be the big day for the coach Sergio Conceicao, the former Parma and Lazio star who famously scored a hat trick for Portugal against Germany at Euro 2000. However, the fiasco in the final led to a huge rift between him and Braga president Antonio Salvador. Conceicao was accused of insulting and threatening to hit the boss, and was dismissed, promptly joining fierce local rivals Vitoria Guimaraes. With the club in disarray, Paulo Fonseca was appointed to rescue the situation.
For Fonseca, that was a superb opportunity to rebuild his reputation. One of the very best young managers in the country, he made his name leading tiny Pacos Ferreira to an incredible third-place finish in 2013. The feat convinced Porto to name him as Vitor Pereira's replacement that summer, and expectations were high after three successive championship titles. The team was weakened, though, with James Rodriguez and Joao Moutinho sold to Monaco, and Fonseca struggled. He wasn't given enough time and was rather unfairly sacked by March 2014.
It must be said that Porto have continued to underachieve ever since, highlighting the fact that the slide was hardly Fonseca's fault. Julen Lopetegui came in two years ago, failed to win any trophies either and was dismissed in January.
It has been a truly dismal season in the league for Porto, as they finished 15 points behind winners Benfica, but their woeful form was irrelevant in the cup. Helton, the 38-year-old Brazilian who has been playing for the club since 2005, kept five clean sheets on the way to the final as he led their bid to claim a first trophy in three years.
On the opposite bench, Braga boss Fonseca was looking for the first major trophy of his career. Having taken four points off Porto in the league, he tried to downplay the importance of meeting his former club, stating that he was not looking for revenge.
"I have always dreamt of coaching in the final, ever since I was a child, but playing against Porto doesn't make it more special," he said.
Few believed him. The coach was just trying to respect the opponents and concentrate on his own team. He knew only too well that some of his players dearly wanted to prove themselves to Porto as well.
Captain Andre Pinto was one of them. He had joined the Porto academy at the age on nine, but never got a chance to represent the team, and eventually left after countless loan spells. But the case of Josue is even more interesting, though, because he was discarded not once, but twice.
Born near Porto, the midfielder had supported the Dragons all his life and joining the academy was a dream come true for him, but the club decided to part company with him in 2011 after numerous loan spells. However, a move to Pacos Ferreira worked out perfectly. Fonseca took him under his wing and Josue triumphantly returned to his beloved club alongside the new coach in 2013. Yet the celebrations were extremely short lived as the young star became surplus to requirements immediately after the coach was fired.
Josue was reunited with Fonseca this winter, moving on loan from Porto to Braga after a relatively successful spell at Turkish club Bursaspor.
The final was the most important game of his life and, after Helton completely misjudging a long ball to enable Benfica loanee Rui Fonte to score the opener, he took his chance with both hands in the second half to make it 2-0. Lucky to receive the ball after a terrible mistake by veteran Spanish stopper Ivan Marcano, Josue buried the ball into the net and burst into tears.
"It was special. Such a complicated situation brings a lot of emotions. I tried to respect Porto fans, but they had a right to whistle at me," he said after the game.
It was somewhat ironic that Porto were punished by a homegrown player they had let go because of their tendency to give foreign signings a chance over academy graduates. However, one talented local youngster did get a golden opportunity in the final and made the most of it.
Enter Andre Silva, who scored a lot for Portugal at youth levels but mostly played for the reserve team in the second division at Porto. On Sunday, coach Jose Peseiro gambled on him in the starting XI and with half an hour ago to go, Silva gave his team hope with a simple finish. Then, in injury time, when even Helton joined the attack, he produced a very special moment and equalised with a tremendous overhead kick.
For Braga, it was exactly the same nightmare as a year ago. Just as they had against Sporting in 2015, they wasted a 2-0 lead and conceded a crucial goal with seconds left on the clock.
But things were different this time. It was Braga's day. Goalkeeper Carlos Marafona -- who can consider himself extremely unlucky not to be included in the Portugal squad for Euro 2016 -- saved two penalties in the shootout, while Helton was helpless against four Braga scorers.
Fonseca was jubilant at the final whistle and the end of a very positive season that saw Os Arsenalistas finish fourth in the league and reach the quarterfinals in the Europa League. Finally, Braga had rewarded their fans for 50 years of patience.
Michael Yokhin is ESPN FC's European football writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Yokhin