PORTO won the first big Portuguese Primeira Liga clash of the season when they recently beat Benfica in Lisbon, a big psychological boost for the “second club” and, perhaps, a signal that the title race this season may be even tighter than 2018-19. Porto won 2-0 in the Estádio da Luz, their fifth victory at the home of their rivals in 10 visits. Porto have the upper hand in Clássico games, winning 10 of the last 20 versus just four Benfica victories.
Benfica have won five of the last six Primeira Liga titles and last season the margin was just two points. The smart money is on this season’s championship being won by either Benfica or Porto, although Sporting may also have a big say.
The big three, Três Grandes, have little fear of losing their top three positions. Quite simply, the mathematics tell you that the chance of any club from outside this trio finishing in the first three is nigh on impossible.
The difference between the big three and the rest of the league is vast. Benfica’s average of almost 54,000 is followed by Porto’s 42,000 and Sporting’s 34,000. These figures dwarf the rest of the league – only two more clubs draw more than 10,000 (Guimarâes and Braga) and at the bottom of the list in 2018-19 was Moreirense, who struggled to get 3,000 per game.
The finances are even more startling, with Benfica and Porto enjoying a playing budget of € 90 million apiece and Sporting € 70 million. The combined total for the Primeira Liga for 2019-20 is € 346 million, with € 250 million attributable to just three clubs. It is doubtful there’s another league in Europe where the differential is quite so great. Regardless, Portugal remains one of the most influential countries in European football – it has one of the top players in Cristiano Ronaldo, it has the top agent in Jorge Mendes, the national team are European and Nations League champions, and of course, there’s José Mourinho.
In addition, the leading clubs are among the best at player trading and developing talent. In Football Benchmark’s study on player trading, Benfica and Porto derived 29% and 34% of their revenues from player trading and Sporting 13%. The model adopted by Portugal’s top clubs is to “buy low, sell high” and the country seems very comfortable in providing a finishing school for top talent. Nuno Correia of NCFoot, a player agency, said Portuguese clubs have to sell and the big European clubs go to Portugal to access technically and tactically proficient players. Effectively, the players signed from Portugal are the sporting equivalent of “plug and play”.
The most often route for importing players is between Brazil and Portugal, according to CIES Football Observatory, with 261 players taking this path. In 2018-19, the first team squads in the Primeira Liga included 137 Brazilians.
Porto are considered one of the best exponents of the “moneyball” approach to team building. The list of players that have been through Porto over the years is impressive: James Rodrigues, Hulk, Falcao, Martinez, Pepe and Alex Sandro to name but a few. The latest export from Porto to command a high fee is Éder Militão, a young Brazilian who spent a season with the club before being sold for € 50 million to Real Madrid. Porto paid € 7 million for the player, which included some € 3 million in agent fees. This level of profitability typifies Porto’s approach. Since 2010, they have earned in excess of € 400 million in transfer fees on an outlay of little more than € 60 million on a list of players that includes James Rodrigues, Hulk, Falcao, Martinez, Moutinho, Otamendi and Alex Sandro, to name but a few.
Porto generated almost € 90 million in transfer fees in the summer of 2019, spending around € 60 million on new recruits. Some see the number of sales as detrimental to the strength of the squad, notably Militão and the under-rated Óliver Torres, who joined Sevilla for € 12 million. The incoming players are, in the main experienced hires, such as Mateus Uribe and Agustín Marchesin from Mexico’s América, who are 28 and 31 respectively, and Iván Marcano from Roma (32). Japanese forward Shoya Nakajima cost € 12 million from Qatari club Al-Duhail.
There’s no dispute about who has attracted the most attention in the transfer market – Benfica. They sold João Félix, their latest prize asset, to Atlético Madrid for € 120 million. He’s still a teenager and one of a number of promising products that have graduated from the Benfica academy, including Rúben Dias (22), Gedson Fernandes (20), Jota (20), Florentino Luís (20) and Ferro (22).
Benfica spent just over € 40 million of the € 180 million they received in the close season, the biggest fee being the € 20 million paid to Real Madrid for Raúl de Tomás, a 24 year-old forward. Carlos Vinícius was signed from Napoli for € 17 million, but the club has placed a € 100 million release clause on the striker.
Benfica’s city rivals, Sporting, are currently top of the table but haven’t won the title since 2001-02. They won both the Portuguese Cup and League Cup in 2018-19 but were trounced by Benfica 5-0 when they met in the Super Cup at the beginning of August.
Sporting’s academy has been very successful in providing a platform for talent, notably Cristiano Ronaldo and Luís Figo in the past. When Portugal won the European Championship in 2016, eight of their players had started in the Sporting academy.
Benfica, as Portuguese champions, went straight into the group stage of the UEFA Champions League. Benfica’s European record, while not as impressive as the club’s golden age of the early-1960s, is very respectable: two Europa finals, one semi-final; four quarter-finals across the Champions League and Europa in the past decade. This has given Benfica a steady stream of income from UEFA.
Porto have also been regular Champions League participants but this season, they went out of the competition very cheaply, winning away at Krasnodar 1-0 and then losing 3-2 at home. Porto, along with Sporting, will be in the group stage of the Europa.
So, it’s likely to be a three-way battle for the title this season, at best. Last season the margin between top and second was two points and the gap between two and three was 11. Between Sporting in third and Benfica on top, there was a 13-point gap. Interestingly, the margin between third and fourth was just seven points, half as much as the 15 that separated these positions in 2015-16.
Porto’s win in Lisbon showed that Benfica will have to fight hard to retain their title. The games between O Três Grandewill be decisive. The next fixtures don’t come around until January when Sporting host Porto and Benfica. By that time, the title credentials of all three clubs will be much clearer. One thing is certain, it is extremely unlikely that there will be another contender.