This week has been a disaster for Liga NOS teams in the Europa League. Braga, Porto, Sporting and Benfica, undoubtedly the four strongest clubs in Portugal, were all knocked out of the competition after first-leg results had seemingly given all four a decent chance of making progress.
Unfortunately, it is more evidence of an alarming slide in the quality of Portugal’s top division. It was not so long ago that Porto lifted the world’s ultimate prize in club football, José Mourinho’s Dragons winning the Champions League in 2004. One year earlier Porto had triumphed in Europe’s secondary competition and would do so again in 2011, while Sporting, Braga and Benfica (twice) also made the Europa League final between 2005 and 2014.
In the first decade and a half of the new millennium, Portugal’s top division was considered an incubator, even a finishing school, for some of the world’s biggest footballing talents: Hulk, Di Maria, James Rodríguez, Falcao, David Luiz, Ederson, Oblak, as well as a smattering of top-class local talent such as Rui Patrício, William Carvalho, Ricardo Carvalho and Fábio Coentrão to name just a few.
Those days seem long gone. So why has this unfortunate metamorphosis taken place? Here are five reasons that help explain the decline of Portuguese club football.
Like so many things in life, it mainly comes down to money. The obvious cause of Portugal’s increasing inability to compete at the top of the European game is the huge financial disparity among the traditional football nations. You can even argue money is also the root cause of the other reasons listed below. Never before has there been such a chasm in wealth between the richest leagues and the rest.
If UEFA don't regulate the wealth in football to ensure everyone has an equal share of the pie, can you be surprised?— Shane Shamrock (@shamrock60000) February 27, 2020
Shortly before Porto won the Champions League in 2004 José Mourinho commented: “The Champions League is not a competition for Portuguese clubs”. A mixture of clever scouting, brilliant coaching, a touch of luck with the draw, and he duly disproved his own theory. But in reality he didn’t and he was absolutely right. Porto’s Champions League victory in 2004 was an anomaly – it was the only time in the last 24 years that a club outside of Spain, England, Italy or Germany has lifted the biggest prize. As things stand, it is very difficult to see anyone other than the so-called super-clubs from winning it again any time soon.
2. End of third-party ownership
Yet even when the disparity in wealth was huge, Portugal found a way to compete, combining its innate flair and passion for the game with clever stratagems, one of which was the expert use of third-party ownership. Unable to offer the same kind of transfer fees or wages as their European counterparts, Portugal’s top clubs part-bought players with the help of external investment funds, thus enticing top talents to these shores.
For the first time since the 1998-99 season, no Portuguese club is remaining in European competition beyond the month of February.— Alex Goncalves (@Aljeeves) February 28, 2020
A twenty year record comes to an end after a disastrous day in the Europa League for Portuguese football, which saw all 4 sides crash out. pic.twitter.com/GBurHqBgtV
While it would only ever be a temporary arrangement, the players in question knew if they performed well, bigger and better things (or at least more money) would come their way, and Portuguese clubs would also benefit in both a sporting and financial sense. When UEFA outlawed TPO, Portugal largely lost its ability to attract top talent.
3. No longer top dogs in scouting
Similarly, another stratagem that enabled Portugal to be ahead of the game was the excellent scouting networks of its top clubs, especially FC Porto, and especially in South America. Benefiting from the linguistic and cultural links to Brazil, and also investing in neighbouring countries, Portuguese clubs would often make sure they got first dibs on the best talent coming out of the American continent.
This current Portuguese league is the weakest I remember it. Hard to think we used to have the likes of Deco, Di Maria, Falcão, Alex Sandro, Quaresma etc, players with enough quality to play anywhere in the world. This year the only world class player left for Man U....— Richard Ennis (@RME105) February 27, 2020
Unfortunately, the rest of the world caught up, again largely down to the immense financial resources available allowing them to supersede the scouting set-ups of Portugal’s clubs and even if they don’t get there first, to offer wages that will entice the player in question to the EPL, La Liga, Bundesliga or Serie A rather than the Liga NOS.
4. Stripped of academy products
The end of TPO and the curtailing of the steady stream of young talented South American footballers had the corollary of clubs investing more in their academies. Indeed, this at first seemed a highly positive consequence of having to tighten the purse strings, especially in the wake of the Euro 2016 triumph in which youngsters such as Renato Sanches and João Mário played a big role. However, the massive discrepancy in wages even Portugal’s top clubs can offer in comparison to their European counterparts has seen Portugal’s best young players leave their clubs at an increasingly early age, recent examples being Renato Sanches, João Félix, Diogo Dalot and Francisco Trincão. While in the past the best young players in Portugal would stay until their early to mid twenties, it is now commonplace for these stars of the future to complete a transfer abroad while still teenagers, as was the case of the four players cited.
Time for a serious house cleaning...lots of blame to go around for each team and the reasons they lost today. Facts are you can’t lose quality Portuguese players each year and replace them with second tiers Brazilians and cast offs.— Rui Aquiles 🇺🇸🇵🇹⚽️ (@ruiaquiles) February 28, 2020
If the best young players keep leaving, it is hardly surprising their teams will be weakened.
5. Bad vibes in Portuguese football
Walking back home from the Estádio da Luz tonight, I was interested to listen to Antena Um journalist José Nunes lamenting the general state of the game in Portugal as regards the constant vitriolic verbal attacks between the top clubs, never-ending accusations of corruption and favouritism to x, y and z from referees, and general “infighting while the house is burning down”. Some will claim, somewhat justifiably, that that is just the way Portuguese football has always been, but it certainly seems, perhaps exacerbated by the social networks, that the men running Portugal’s major clubs are more interested in getting one over their bitter rivals than addressing the underlying problems that prevent the game from moving forward in the country.
Will tonight serve as a wake-up call and change this state of affairs? As they say in Portugal: “É melhor esperar sentado”. Or in plain English: “Don’t hold your breath”.
by Tom Kundert