Braga travel to face Leicester City on Thursday in search of inspiration. The Foxes achieved the dream of ending the status quo by winning the Premier League in 2016, something their opponents are aiming to do in Portugal.
One of Braga’s key men is longstanding goalkeeper Matheus, who will be tasked with keeping Jamie Vardy and co at bay in the Europa League. The Brazilian joined in 2014 and is now the club’s undisputed No 1.
“Leicester is undoubtedly a source of inspiration for any club that wants to grow and impose itself among the big clubs, but I think Braga is also an example,” Matheus says.
“We finished third and won the League Cup which is also very difficult in Portugal. Of course winning the Premier League was an incredible achievement, but they also have achieved sustained growth, just like Sporting Braga.
“You can have a great year, but then you lower your performance. To have consistency is very difficult, and Leicester have been able to make that leap of quality in a sustained way. A short time ago they were in the Championship and now they're fighting to get in the way of the best teams in the country.”
Matheus is another member of the growing contingent of Brazilian goalkeepers excelling in Europe. Arguably the two finest No 1s in the Premier League are Liverpool’s Alisson and Ederson who battle it out to be first choice for their country. However, he is yet to be capped and having gained Portuguese citizenship, he has been linked with a call-up by the country he calls home.
“They are two of the best in the world and have inspired many. Alisson is on a great level and so is Ederson. It is a pride for Brazil to have goalkeepers like this in clubs like City and Liverpool. A few years ago it was said that Brazil had little quality in goal but now we have an incredible generation of goalkeepers. I think the training has improved and that can be seen by the large number of Brazilian goalkeepers in important clubs in Europe.”
For many years there was a dearth of Brazilian goalkeeping talent as the country struggled to create a world class ‘keeper. The South Americans were never short of talented forwards or midfielders, but in between the sticks options were generally limited.
“I think the goalkeeping training has improved. In addition, there has been more betting on young goalkeepers in Brazil and coming to Europe young, many of them were able to evolve and learn in Europe. The image of Brazilian goalkeepers in Europe has also improved. That stigma about goalkeepers has been broken.”
Matheus' opposite number Kasper Schmeichel has shown himself to be a fine custodian over a lengthy career, collecting 58 internationals caps to go with his Premier League winners medal.
“He is undoubtedly one of the best goalkeepers in Europe. He has shown not only at his club, but also in his country, he is showing this every season. These are examples that we have to follow, that we have to take the good part and the qualities to improve. He's been very regular, both at Leicester and in Denmark's national team. He's fantastic in the game with his feet and he's a leader. And it's not easy being the son of a legend like he is, because sometimes the surname weighs on you, but he's dealt with it.”
The club is growing, allowing it to build an impressive academy, which recently produced Francisco Trincao who was sold to €31m to Barcelona. Braga finished third last season, a sign that they are real challengers in a league dominated for decades by its traditional big three of Benfica, Porto and Sporting Lisbon. Under new head coach Carlos Carvahal they currently sit third in the table and will be hoping to improve on last season’s finish.
“I think we have been able to narrow the gap for those clubs. For me, Braga is one of the big clubs in Portugal. Last season we managed to finish third and win the League Cup and I think more and more people look at Sporting Braga as one of the best teams in the country. The goal is, precisely, to be stronger and to reduce the difference for those teams. It's a gradual process and the club has taken safe steps in that direction.”
It is likely Braga and Leicester will battle it out for top spot in their Europa League group. The Portuguese side reached the final in 2011 and repeating the feat would be the culmination of hard work for a squad which won the League Cup last season.
“Over the years, Sporting Braga have gained important European status. Thanks to the work that has been done, the club has become a regular presence in Europe. It was present in a Europa League final, a quarter-final of the Europa League, in the Champions League group stage. This means we have to live up to this status.
“For now, the goal is to overcome the group stage. We achieved two very important victories in the first two matches and now we have a very difficult double against Leicester. But we rely on our quality to get through the group stage and we go to every game with the aim of winning.”