With the final games of the 2023 Campeonato Paulista soon to occur, it’s always interesting to look back at some of the most interesting stories of the tournament prior to the games that will seal the entire deal and crown a new champion or just add another trophy to one’s vast collection. But what was the most interesting story of the championship before the knockout rounds? Well, that's what I'll be reviewing in this article today.
Portuguesa, a classic team of the state, had just returned to the top tier of São Paulo football this year.
Prior to the last round of the group stages, things didn’t look good for Portuguesa. They were rock bottom in the overall standings with seven points, and needed a very elaborate list of events to happen in order to somehow stay in the main division of São Paulo’s football tournament, but even then, all seemed very unlikely: a tie or a loss immediately sealed their downfall back to the second division of the Paulistão, just a year after returning with a triumphal title run in 2022. Their direct rivals ranged from fellow classics like Ferroviária to even winners of the tournament in the form of Ituano, and Portuguesa had to pray for a win and for the downfall of other teams that were directly fighting to stay.
First, let’s set the scene for Portuguesa’s decisive game: it’s the 5th of March, 2023, and “Lusa” went to the small city of Mirassol in order to play their final match of the group stages against the city’s team, Mirassol. Even prior to the game, there were already a good amount of Portuguesa’s fans present around Campos Maia Stadium, the stadium which Mirassol calls home. While that game was about to start, the team’s rivals were also set to play in order to survive and stay in the top flight of the tournament: 15th-place Ferroviária (which was also currently being relegated to the second division alongside Portuguesa) were set to play in a direct confrontation against Inter de Limeira, who were also at risk of being relegated (although their chances were way smaller than those of other teams), while Ituano had to face Santos. A team which few remembered was also in this fight was São Bento, who was also at risk, and they were tasked to face off against Red Bull Bragantino.
Even after the club’s severe downfall starting from 2013, Portuguesa was able to barely hold on to survival and bounce back by winning the second flight of the Campeonato Paulista in 2022, in a close final against São Bento, where a tie in the first game was followed by a 2-0 win for “Lusa” left the aggregate at 3-1. However, with the high expectations of returning to the top tier for the first time since 2015, Portuguesa struggled. Only a single win came to them in the group stages (a 3-0 win against Red Bull Bragantino at home), alongside four ties. However, the rest of the six games were losses, including harsh defeats ranging from a 4-1 against São Paulo and a 4-0 against Santos. Portuguesa’s squad knew that they would need a miracle to survive and stay in the top flight of São Paulo’s football tournament for 2024.
The game started, and things already seemed to be troublesome for Portuguesa. For most of the first half of the match, the game stayed at 0-0, and the signs of trouble only seemed to be even more alarming, as on the 43rd minute, Mirassol was the first to score, courtesy of the home team’s number 10 shirt, Camilo, which saw the midfielder jumping to insane heights in order to score a nicely executed header. It only made it seem that the game was done, and Portuguesa would have to go back to the black hole that they had just escaped from.
When all seemed lost, Portuguesa fought back, fueled by wanting to stay at the top flight of the Paulistão.
However, when Portuguesa fans were thinking that they were done with, “Lusa” was able to suddenly bounce back in two minutes! At the start of the first half’s extra time, Portuguesa attacker Richard darted through Mirassol’s defense and scored a fantastic goal, just outside of the area. This was the goal that restored the Portuguesa’s fans' faith and excitement for a possible escape from the relegation zone. Far from Mirassol, Ferroviária was crumbling with a tie against direct competitor Inter de Limeira setting them up for relegation that had not occurred to them ever since 2015, while Ituano stunned everyone by scoring two against giants Santos in the first half alone and essentially saving themselves from relegation. Even with Portuguesa still running last once the first halves of all games ended, there was a relit spark of hope that had grown incredibly strong after Richard’s goal.
The second half started, and the game was on for Portuguesa to secure a shock stay in the top flight of São Paulo’s football league. Ituano was basically able to secure themselves in the top tier after beating giants Santos 3-0, so that was off the list. Was it over for Portuguesa? Well, it seemed like it, until someone in the stadium apparently yelled out that Red Bull Bragantino had scored a goal, but against whom? Well, no one had remembered São Bento was in this fight, and the team from Sorocaba losing could very well guarantee Portuguesa’s stay in the main division.
The fans waited until the 53rd minute to breathe properly again, as Portuguesa was finally able to turn the game around, where midfielder João Victor was able to score a goal by throwing himself in the direction of the ball to score a low header. This was what Portuguesa needed to stay: a win could very well seal the deal, and as Ferroviária could only manage a tie, they were already guaranteed to be relegated, while São Bento’s woes only served as
Portuguesa’s joy, as their loss guaranteed their stay.
However, even when Portuguesa had been able to successfully turn around the game in their favour, Mirassol still had one big moment which made Portuguesa’s fans’ hearts stop; at the 27th minute of the Second Half, Mirassol’s full-back Guilherme Biro went for a header after Mirassol was awarded a corner kick, but what could have been a tying goal was miraculously saved by Portuguesa’s goalkeeper, Thomazella. If Portuguesa’s fans thought this was the last moment in which Mirassol was about to score, they were very mistaken.
With one minute to go until the extra time ended, Guilherme Biro was committed to score, and went for another very dangerous header, which miraculously hit the left post and gave the chance for Thomazella to make an insane save. The full-on attack was far from over though. While Portuguesa was doing everything to keep the ball away from the back of the goal, Mirassol attacker Negueba went for yet another incredibly dangerous header, courtesy of a long kick by defensive midfielder Gabriel, which Thomazella hit his stride again and went for a successful diving save, which in turn made the ball go to the left of the Portuguesa goal, which enabled Portuguesa defender Igor to hit the ball out of bounds (All while fellow Portuguesa defender Diogo Marzagão even got a yellow card!).
Finally, the referee blew the whistle to call the end of the game. Portuguesa had done it! As Portuguesa’s goalkeeper Thomazella got Man of the Match thanks to his fantastic saves, they were able to save themselves from relegation immediately after returning. Their win sealed São Bento’s fate as well, who, after tripping on a 3-0 loss against Red Bull Bragantino, were relegated as well, being beaten by Portuguesa on goal difference. To make everything sweeter, a stay in the top flight of São Paulo’s football league will serve as a crucial helping hand in the long run. Now, all we can do is hope that this once great and traditional team can return to its original form.