Portugal’s Primeira Liga is Europe’s breeding ground for top talent; a veritable goldmine of as yet unfulfilled promise and hidden gems. Each year, the continent’s top clubs scout extensively in the long, narrow country on the Iberian Peninsula in the hope of unearthing the next Hulk, Radamel Falcao or James Rodríguez. And for good reason.
For Portuguese clubs – even the biggest sides such as FC Porto, Benfica and Sporting Lisbon – follow strategic business plans like few others, scouring the globe, and in particular the fertile footballing ground of South America, in order to recruit talented, aspiring professional footballers to their shores and then develop them into viable, saleable assets. From a business perspective, the margins are sensational, but the clubs are forced into this kind of role more out of necessity than choice.
Indeed, the likes of Porto, Benfica and Sporting have been hit harder than most by the financial crisis engulfing the country, and see player trading as a means to an end – a way of keeping head above water and balancing the books, if you like. The logical consequence of such an economic model is that talent is nurtured for years on end, only for the big hitters to come calling at the first sign of any real, sustained progression on behalf of one of their vast array of diamonds in the rough. Resultantly, the cream, of course, does rise to the top, but it does so in a different environment altogether, and Portugal’s top clubs rarely see these home-grown stars reach their true peak.
The fundamental principles of capitalism dictate that in any walk of life there are winners and losers, and although it would be remiss to suggest that teams such as Porto fall neatly into the second category they, themselves, are big fishes in an increasingly small Portuguese pond and thus tend to regularly share domestic honours with the two Lisbon-based clubs.
The logical conclusion of this particular tale is that the Portuguese sides are faced with consistently high player turnover and remain stuck in a liminal place, unable to develop sides truly capable of challenging for continental honours. In a sense, the term “selling club” was coined for teams of this ilk, yet one, in particular, is particularly deserving of the title. One, it must be said, has repeatedly overcome the various obstacles placed in front of it to break through the proverbial glass ceiling.
Founded on September 28, 1893, as Foot-Ball Club do Porto by António Nicolau d’Almeida, a local port and wine merchant whose interest in the sport was piqued by regular trips to England, Northern-based Porto have long had a reputation for success and glory.
The club, nicknamed Dragões (Dragons) in homage to the mythological creature that stands atop the club’s emblematic crest, or Azuis e brancos (Blue and white), for their traditional kit colours, have won a staggering record 27 Primeira Liga titles – five of which came consecutively (between 1995 and 1999) – 16 Taças de Portugal, and 20 Supertaças. Internationally, Porto have also amassed seven major continental titles: namely the European Cup/UEFA Champions League in 1987 and 2004, the UEFA Cup/Europa League in 2003 and 2011, and the UEFA Super Cup in 1987.
FC Porto have always been one of Portugal’s traditional ‘big three’ alongside Benfica and Sporting, yet their most recent success is the stuff myths and legends are based upon. The financial restraints at the club have meant that successive managers have had to be creative when it comes to player trading. Numerous elite-level coaches, including the likes of José Mourinho and André Villas-Boas have cut their teeth at the side located in Portugal’s second most populous city, and it is perhaps these very conditions that have allowed the aforementioned duo and others to thrive both at home and on the continent. It is, without doubt, a country and a league that is conducive to nurturing top class players and managers alike.
To quote a popular metaphor, ‘Porto’s managers are thrown in at the deep end’ – yet those that swim tend to become greats. Many within the game have attempted to pinpoint the very factors that have lead to such unqualified success, and most have highlighted the astonishing work done by the club’s extensive network of worldwide scouts.
“Porto’s success rests on three assumptions: recruitment, development and yield,” notes general director Antonio Henrique.
“Recruitment links with scouting, development is linked with training and productivity is linked with the performance of the player in the first team. Most players are young when they come to our club and end up being in training permanently. We work with 250 scouts around the world in countries that make sense for football, because we will not send anyone to Bangladesh.
“We have internal and external scouts, which are divided into several levels of observation, which allows a player to be viewed by several people. They work with a shadow team, which is a set of players who are identified from various leagues, who are capable of being hired by Porto.”
Porto’s scouting system is a meticulous process that has, at least in part, allowed the club to flourish domestically and internationally. The foundations of Mourinho’s great teams of 2002-03 and 2004 were built by a successful and targeted system that focused on smaller, regional sides in Portugal, but also South America’s more renowned footballing nations.
In recent seasons, less fashionable clubs like Vitória Guimarães, CS Marítimo as well as Paços de Ferreira and Estoril have all lost players to the Dragões, however it is the South America scouting network that has been particularly profitable. High-profile players such as Radamel Falcao, Hulk, Lucho González have graced the atmospheric Estádio do Dragão turf, while key members of the ‘Special One’s’ UEFA Cup and Champions League-winning teams, like two-goal UEFA Cup final scorer Derlei and the speedy attacker Carlos Alberto were also discovered in the continent.
The extent to which the club rely on and indeed consistently seek to perfect their already impressive targeted scouting system is perhaps best explained by the club’s chairman, Jorge Nuno Pinto da Costa: “We have to be permanently studying the youth market. This is what allows us to keep fighting, despite having a budget 20 times less in respect to income than others. Players come here and feel at home straight away.”
It was this very same system and environment that allowed Mourinho to build his trophy-hoarding side of the early-2000s. A period of sublime, unanticipated success culminated in two European trophies in two years, as the club first won a classic UEFA Cup final 3-2 against a Henrik Larsson-inspired Celtic, and then went one better the following year in lifting Europe’s premier club competition.
That year, Porto finished second in their group, losing only once to the might of Real Madrid, and then faced Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United in a highly anticipated last-16 tie. It was there, in the 90th minute of the second-leg at Old Trafford, that Mourinho gave us one of the iconic images in the history of modern football.
As defensive midfielder Costinha’s headed nestled into the corner of the home side’s net, Mourinho proceeded to sprint 50 yards down the touchline in a wild, emotional celebration that culminated with his players close to the corner flag. It was a show of solidarity and togetherness that resonated loudly, and the team then overcame Lyon and Deportivo La Coruña to reach the final, where they defeated Monaco 3–0 to lift the club’s second Champions League title.
Mourinho left for Chelsea that same summer, and the Azuis e brancos have rarely, if at all, hit the heights since. Player trading – in particular numerous key exits – has taken its toll on the pitch. In the last ten seasons, Porto have raked in a total of €554 million from player sales, making a profit of over €270 million in the process. Some of the most expensive – Falcao €47 million, Pepe €30 million, Ricardo Carvalho €30 million and Deco €21 million – even went on to reach the pinnacle of the European game with the likes of Barcelona and Chelsea.
Porto’s current incarnation, led by former Spanish under-21 coach Julen Lopetegui, boasts several players capable of following in their esteemed predecessors’ footsteps. Brazilian full-back Danilo has already agreed to join Champions League holders Real Madrid this summer, while the jewel in the club’s crown, Algerian attacking midfield star Yacine Brahimi, is being courted by Manchester City amongst others.
For now, at least, Porto’s famed scouting system remains Southern Europe’s primary talent conveyor belt. This is a perpetual cycle of development and player sales that shows no signs of abating.
By Patrick Boyland. Follow @Paddy_Boyland