THIS COULD be one of Europe’s big clubs. I mean really big clubs. Of course, FC Porto have been crowned European champions twice, but that was in a different time, before European football became so concentrated and before TV money really kicked in. Porto are not top tier in the eyes of the modern game, but make no mistake, this is a sizeable outfit in every sense of the word.
And let’s not forget that Portugal are European champions, admittedly not the Portugal of Eusebio, Coluna and Simoes, but these glittering idols of the past never got to place silverware on the mantelpiece of the Portuguese FA. A less romantic team, all strategic savvy and opportunism, finally gave A Seleção das Quinas something to polish. The tattered flags from the summer of 2016 can still be seen dotted around the city of Porto.
Furthermore, FC Porto are the number two team in the land of the European champions and fierce rivals of Benfica, the team we all associate with Portuguese football’s myths and legends. Any loyal Porto fan will tell you, though, their club has won more European honours than their friends in Lisbon – two European Cups and two UEFA Cup/Europa Leagues to Benfica’s brace of European Cups from the early 1960s. To add to the argument, Porto have a better record than Benfica in the big clash, O Clássico. They might like to think about that when the two clubs meet on April 1 in a game that could decide this season’s title race.
Porto haven’t won the Primeira Liga since 2013 and in two of the last three campaigns, they have fallen to third, including 2015-16, which was universally considered to be a disappointing year for the club.
Money makes the ball go round
Indeed, the club’s finances reflected a lack of success on the field of play and it is when you see the figures, you realise that clubs like Porto and Benfica have to go a long way to catch up the blue riband organisations of European football. That said, Porto were still ranked 32nd in the European Elite produced by KPMG’s Football Benchmark team in 2016.
Porto are renowned for their player trading capabilities and have a track record of buying cheap and selling for substantial fees. They have also leveraged the controversial third party ownership system to good effect, although with this method now outlawed, the impact on Porto may become more apparent in the coming years. Certainly, both Porto and Benfica have been beneficiaries of this scheme and are recognised for providing a gateway to Europe for South American players.
In 2015-16, there may have been signs of the flow of players that has yielded big fees for players like Radamel Falcao (EUR 40m), Hulk (EUR 60m), Jackson Martinez (EUR 35m) and James Rodriguez (EUR 45m) was starting to dry up. Porto were still selling, but overall, player trading, which includes amortisation and imparity losses with trades and gains of players, resulted in a net profit of EUR 7m, a decrease of some EUR 44m on the previous year. Porto made EUR 38m from the trading of players (a considerable drop) but amortisations and imparement losses totalled some EUR 31m.
People often look at the huge fees that Porto seem to command and question why the club is not more financially successful, but the transfer figures are often misleading as Porto lays off the cost of buying players by placing the economic rights with investors. Moreover, the club also boosts its financial position through the UEFA Champions League, which they have participated in every season bar one since winning the competition in 2004. So, if they fall short in Europe, such as in 2015-16 when they went out at the group stage and then the last 32 in the Europa, the margin for success is compressed. In 2014-15, Porto earned EUR 36.1m from European competitions but in 2015-16, that figure dropped to just EUR 11.6m.
Porto’s overall financial performance saw the club lose around EUR 58m in 2015-16, the worst net result ever recorded. This prompted the club to refrain from “transferring some of the assets of the company”, which roughly translated explains why at the start of 2016-17 there were no major player sales.
Although attendances at the impressive Estádio do Dragão average 35,000 which makes them among the top 50 best supported clubs across Europe, total ticket sales amounted to EUR 6.3m for the entire 2015-16 season. Just compare that to, for example, Tottenham Hotspur who have a similar-sized average gate and the difference in scale is very visible – total Premier League gate receipts at White Hart Lane in 2014-15 totalled more than GBP 22m.
This is, of course, all relative and Portugal has been going through a torrid time economically. Unemployment still touches 10% and the average monthly wage is EUR 1,200. Ticket prices at the Estádio do Dragão reflect that and, consequently, Porto’s ability to compete internationally is also compromised.
A happier Fado
According to the locals, life is starting to get marginally better for Portuguese people, despite some market watchers claiming the country remains vulnerable. Antoniò Costa’s government has worked down the unemployment rate from 17% to its current level and the budget deficit, at just 2%, is at the lowest level for 40 years. This might not seem remarkable to some people, but just a few years ago, Portugal was seen as a “basket case” incapable of turning itself around.
With the additional success of Euro 2016, Portugal has started smiling again after a grim post-crisis environment. It’s also worth noting that the Portuguese tradition of Fado, known for its mournful torch songs, has a far happier tone in Porto.
As the national team were crowned champions, Porto were looking back at a season that was below expectations, both on the field and in the boardroom. They appointed Nuno Espirito Santo, a former player who, according to the club’s grandees, “had a deep knowledge of our nature and ambition”. He’ll have to deliver, for Porto coaches don’t seem to hang around very long. Expectation is high at the club, if only because they want to finish above the old enemy in the capital.
Porto is very much a working class city and with that comes a deep love of their football team. Blue and white dominates the city, casting poor old Boavista into the shadows. The two clubs have a fierce rivalry and their games are known as O Derby da Invicta. Boavista have won just one Primeria Liga title, in 2001, and they play in front of 5,000 people at the Estádio do Bessa.
Porto’s home, at the Estádio do Dragão, is on the east side of town and is a legacy of the 2004 European Championships. It replaced the club’s old home Estádio das Antas and has a 50,000-plus capacity.
It is well served by the excellent Porto Metro system and his its own station. It’s an impressive stadium in the modern sense and sits high above ground-level, reached by steep stairs or elevator.
The collectivo spirit
The climb only serves to heighten anticipation and once you’re there, it is easy to be struck by the vista. Not only do you look across Porto, but the view from outside into the ground itself merely adds to the feeling that everyone is coming out to see the club of the city.
The audience is very mixed, lots of young people and a sprinkling of older folk. But the passion is incredible, going right across the generations.
Game of the People was in attendance for Porto’s clash with Vitória de Setúbal, a lower mid-table team from the city that gave birth to one of Portugal’s most famous sons, Jose Mourinho.
The game had an added incentive for Porto – with Benfica drawing 24 hours earlier, a victory would result in Azuis e brancos going top of the Primeira Liga. That’s probably why a crowd of 49,417 turned up on a sun-lit Sunday evening, some 15,000 more than usual.
Porto had just said farewell to the UEFA Champions League a few days earlier, losing 0-1 at Juventus (0-3 on aggregate). But in the Liga, they had not conceded a goal in five matches and had netted 18. Their last home game saw them beat Nacional 7-0. Their leading scorer before kick-off was 21 year-old international Andre Silva. There’s big hopes around this lad as he signed a new five-year contract in August with a release clause of EUR 60m. You sensed he’s the next big departure at some point if he keeps progressing. New signing Soares, secured from Vitoria Guimaraes in January, had also been in form, scoring nine goals in eight games since joining the club.
Porto’s line-up was very multi-cultural. There were three Spanish players: World Cup winner Iker Casillas in goal; Ivan Marcano in central defence; and Oliver Torres in midfield; two Mexicans: Miguel Layun and the impressive Jesus Corona; three Brazilians in left back Alex Telles, Felipe and Soares; Algerian Yacine Brahimi; and just two Portuguese in Danilo Pereira and Silva. It was easy to see that Porto have strong links with Latin America.
Scarves aloft and way we go
It is always heart-warming to see a continental European crowd spring to life the way that the Porto fans greeted the start of the contest. So often in Britain, singing revolves around abuse and bad language, but Porto have a club song with meaningful lyrics and everyone – literally everyone – stands and sings their head off, mostly with eyes closed or with a high degree of emotion. And almost everyone raised their scarves as they sang. It was quite a sight and underlined the community aspect of watching “our club”.
Then there was the very colourful flag procession, huge standards emerging from the dark denizens of the stadium and fringing the pitch. Meanwhile, the ultras at the far end were in fine voice, jumping up and down like a heaving mass of insects. To complement the Super Dragaos, the Collectivo joined the chorus.
The supporters around us were, naturally, regulars. Everyone knew each other – handshakes, hugs, cheek-kissing and backslaps as they welcomed each other back to their home. You felt as if you had walked into a party uninvited. But it was an experience to watch the passion, the devotion and the joy they extracted from a mere football match.
Porto attacked from the start, but Setubal’s defence was stubborn and they “parked the bus” and invited the home team to try and shift it. The crowd did not like Setubal’s tall black goalkeeper Bruno Varela and one more than one occasion, racist chants were hurled his way. He was frequently called, “Filho de uma puta” – the son of a whore, not dissimilar to the controversial language that led to Setubal’s favourite son leaving Chelsea in 2015. The police shifted a few supporters out of their seats, presumably for the anti-social behaviour. Varela was a master of time-wasting, however and received medical treatment on no less than three occasions in half an hour.
Porto were full of energy in the first half, urged on by the crowd with their simple but chilling “Porto…Porto” chant that was reciprocated by the opposite end of the stadium. Brahimi saw a shot blocked on the line and then Marcano hit the woodwork with a header. It was not until stoppage time in the first half that Porto went ahead, Torres crosses and Corona’s volley found the top corner. The crowd behind the goal resembled Dante’s Inferno, bodies everywhere, twisting and cavorting. The Porto die-hard next to me, who had kicked very ball, disputed every decision, was in delirium. The 70-something couple in front of us danced as if it were New Year’s Eve, the elderly man behind us showered us with saliva as his excitement boiled over. “Christ, I hope they don’t score again,” I joked. “Not sure I can take another goal”. Corona’s strike was a fine one, though, and deserved.
Someone was listening, for Porto were never as effective again. In the 56th minute, Setubal scored in a near-silent stadium, the only noise coming from a small group of away fans, kept as high as possible and out of sight, like ugly Victorian kids in the attic. The scorer was Joao Carvalho.
Porto went close again when Silva hit the post, but they had run out of ideas, every ball into the area was nodded out by the Setubal defence. Not even an extra seven minutes of added time could change the outcome – and this was actually a 102-minute game. A final score of 1-1 meant Porto had failed to close the gap on Benfica. That game in Lisbon on April 1 becomes even more important, for both sides.
All human life had been witnessed. Without a doubt the most intense football crowd I had ever witnessed. A great experience, a terrific club. I will say it again, this could be one of Europe’s really big clubs. Maybe one day?