From Nani to Rúben Dias: how Portuguese clubs became Europe's great salesmen (but are still in debt)

Tom Morgan
·4 min read
Ruben Dias - From Nani to Rúben Dias: how Portuguese clubs became Europe's great salesmen (but are still in debt) - Shuttershock
Ruben Dias - From Nani to Rúben Dias: how Portuguese clubs became Europe's great salesmen (but are still in debt) - Shuttershock

Even in the financially dysfunctional landscape of European football, Manchester City versus Porto on Wednesday is as nonsensical as the Champions League gets.

Since Jose Mourinho held aloft the trophy in 2004, Porto have spent less than they've earned in player trading in all but one campaign. In that same period, City have splurged way beyond their incomings 14 seasons out of 16. Yet, somehow, it is the lavish-spending City, more than £1 billion down on net transfers, who have enjoyed five straight seasons in overall operating profit.

Porto, meanwhile, lick their wounds from £40 million losses over six months even before Covid. The Portuguese football model has been punching above its weight at every level for years. Broadcasting deals for the nation are worth £250 million compared with £3.5 billion in the Premier League, yet the 2016 European Championship winners appear to have produced yet another golden generation.

The Premier League is again the main beneficiary this year, with Bruno Fernandes, most notably transforming Manchester United's midfield since his arrival from Sporting Lisbon.

Fernandes was in part developed in Italy, but since then the lion's share of £150 million-worth of talent developed by Portugal's two dominant sides, Porto and Benfica, has landed in England.

Wednesday's City side is likely to include the £61.2 million defender Rúben Dias, who was signed from Benfica, with the Argentine centre-back Nicolas Otamendi moving the other way for £13.7 million. Debt-ridden Porto have been more eager to cash in, selling the 18-year-old Fábio Silva, after just 12 league appearances last season, to Wolves for £35 million.

Pandemic-defying prices have been secured, but there remains a sense in Portugal that this talent hothouse for Europe's elite is a raw deal for the Primeira Liga. Benfica and Porto, previously kings of Europe three times between them, now reduced to feeding the nouveau riche royalty of the modern game.

The pathway has been set in stone since the mid 2000s when Nani left Sporting Lisbon for Manchester United, increasing his wages 17-fold. Since then clubs have become increasingly willing to swoop on reputation alone. City's Bernardo Silva had played for Benfica just once before he was shipped off to Monaco in 2014. Six years on, the relatively unproven Fabio Silva is the latest teenager on the production line of Jorge Mendes, the super agent whose first ever client happened to be the Wolves head coach, Nuno Espírito Santo.

Fabio Silva - Wolverhampton Wanderers
Fabio Silva - Wolverhampton Wanderers

Porto became the first Portuguese team to win the Uefa Champions Youth League in 2018/19, but the stars of that team are all expected to head for foreign clubs.

"At Benfica and Porto there is a growing resentment that so many supremely talented players leave the club before they even get the chance to prove themselves in the first team, often without the players themselves pushing for a move," says Portuguese football expert Tom Kundert, who authored The Thirteenth Chapter and A Journey Through Portuguese Football

"Porto were previously masters at working the transfer market in the first decade and a half of this millennium," he adds. Hulk, James Rodriguez, Falcao and Jackson Martinez were sold on for huge profit, but European rivals soon copied Porto's scouting methods in South America. The outlawing of third-party ownership also hampered their ability to negotiate.

Sixteen years after Porto's Champions League title, the club — and Benfica to a lesser extent — have adopted the more youth-oriented model of Sporting Lisbon, the only club in the world to produce two Ballon d'Or winners: Luís Figo and Cristiano Ronaldo.

And Mendes, who also oversaw moves within the Premier League for Diogo Jota, Matt Doherty and Hélder Costa this summer, has been perfectly placed to yield the benefits thanks to his network of contacts across the continent.

Exported talent in recent years includes Renato Sanches, Thierry Correia, André Gomes, João Cancelo, Gonçalo Guedes, André Silva, Rúben Neves and Diogo Dalot, yet the wealth between the Portuguese top tier and the big European clubs gets wider every year.

"Ever since I remember Porto, Sporting and Benfica have been immersed in debt, no matter how well or badly they are doing, how much Champions League or transfer revenue they get," Kundert adds.

Same pitch, different horizons, for the two clubs at the Etihad this week.