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Last Updated: Thursday, 26 May, 2005, 10:37 GMT 11:37 UK
Algarve United and the Iberian lynx
By Julian Pettifer
BBC News, Portugal

Football is not a sport usually associated with philanthropy, but Julian Pettifer meets a football club owner in southern Portugal who has decided to spend money on a big cat in danger of extinction.

Iberian lynx, PA
There are only a few lynxes surviving in the wild

First, a confession.

I am not a great fan of the beautiful game.

In my opinion, far too much emotion, conversation, air-time, newsprint, national pride and money is invested in football.

Nonetheless, here am I, adding to the hype with yet another football yarn. Actually it is more of a fairy tale because it involves an unlikely marriage that will take a bit of magic to make it work.

In this version of Beauty and the Beast, Beauty is the Iberian lynx, elegant and elusive and the most rare cat species in the world, and the Beast - who is, of course, transformed into the Prince and comes to the rescue - is a Portuguese football team, Algarve United.

Let me explain.

If you travel down the motorway from Spain to Faro, as you cross into Portugal, you drive under a great arch, bearing the message: "Welcome to the Stadium of Europe".

Magnificent

Sure enough, 20 minutes further on, adjacent to Faro Airport, is a most imposing structure.

The Algarve Stadium was built for Euro 2004. A handful of European Cup matches were played in it, and since then it has been virtually abandoned
Follow the stadium signs off the motorway and very soon you are driving through endless acres of car parks surrounding this 30,000-seat, state-of-the-art football stadium.

It is magnificent, but it has a sadly deserted and neglected air. Everything is locked up and weeds are growing between the flagstones.

The story is all too familiar.

The Algarve Stadium was built for Euro 2004. A handful of European Cup matches were played in it, and since then it has been virtually abandoned. It has become another of those white elephants strewn across the Earth following World Fairs and Expos and Olympic Games and other sporting extravaganzas.

The Algarve Stadium was too big and too expensive for any of the local football teams. But that is about to change; and this is a football fairy tale.

Promotion

The man who waved his magic wand is Corrado Correggi, a local businessman who amassed a fortune making corks for fine wine.

Algarve Stadium
The Algarve Stadium seats 30,000 and is state-of-the-art
In partnership with his Scottish father-in-law, John McGovern, Correggi also became a successful football agent.

Last year they used their scouting skills to put together a new football team they called Algarve United - the Lynxes - hoping that one day they might occupy the Algarve stadium.

The players they recruited are young and local and mostly semi-professional but they do not lack ambition.

Just a few weeks ago the Lynxes won the decisive match that gained their promotion from the regional league.

After only one season, they are now fully professional and shamelessly boasting that they have set their sights on the Portuguese equivalent of the Premiership. It may take a year or two but long before that, they hope to occupy the new stadium.

SOS Lynx

When Mr Correggi chose to name his team after the Iberian lynx and to use its head as his logo, it was an obvious choice.

Graph showing the decline of the Iberian lynx
The animal is native to the Algarve and the last large member of the cat family found in Europe. It is also critically endangered.

There are perhaps 100 surviving in the wild, all of them in Spain and Portugal and experts warn that it could be the first large cat to become extinct since the sabre-toothed tiger.

To avert such a tragedy, a young man, Eduardo Concalves, helped found a conservation organisation called SOS Lynx.

When I met Eduardo he explained his infatuation with the animal.

Seven years ago he purchased a smallholding where there was no electricity or sanitation or running water but there was something that changed his life.

He discovered that his bit of land in the mountains is traditional Iberian lynx territory and he had his first encounter with the spotted cat.

It is about the size of a boxer dog, he says, with black tufted ears, a short tail and distinctive forked beard. A real beauty and he had to do something to help save it. So, five years ago, SOS Lynx was born.

Conservation

When Eduardo heard about the new Lynxes football team, he approached owner Corrado Correggi to suggest he might like to sponsor SOS Lynx in their conservation work.

But without being asked, Mr Correggi made an amazing offer: 10% of all gate receipts and 10% of membership fees to go to lynx conservation.

Initially the money is earmarked for forest fire prevention and reforestation.

It is a long-term agreement and if the Lynxes are successful and get their new stadium, it could mean big money for the big cats, one day helping to re-introduce captive-bred animals into the wild.

We are used to the idea of multimillion-pound sponsorships of football teams by brewers and telecoms but a football team sponsoring wildlife must be a first.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 26 May, 2005 at 1100 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

SEE ALSO:
Hopes raised by Spain lynx births
30 Mar 05 |  Science/Nature
Iberian lynx in 'gravest danger'
10 Mar 05 |  Science/Nature
Iberian lynx 'racing against time'
07 Jan 03 |  Science/Nature


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