Austria: Red Bull Salzburg on course for 10th consecutive title

WITH ONE game to go in the regular Austrian Bundesliga programme, four of the six places have been decided for the Championship play-off stage. Three clubs are vying for the last two spots: Austria Klagenfurt, Austria Wien and WSG Tirol. At the top of the table, Red Bull Salzburg have cemented their customary seat at the table and sit nine points clear of Sturm Graz, the only Austrian team to beat the champions this season.

Salzburg have won 17 of their 21 games and have lost just once, a 2-1 defeat in Graz. Similarly, they were beaten by Graz in the quarter-finals of the Austrian Cup. Graz face LASK in the semi-final on April 5, the other semi is between Rapid Wien and SV Ried. So, for only the second time in the past 10 years, Red Bull Salzburg will not be winning the double in Austria.

Salzburg’s hold on Austrian football shows little sign of abating, although the gap between the top two as they reach the end of the first stage is less than last season. Salzburg had a substantial margin to take into the Championship round in 2021-22, but the gap may be as little as five points this season. In the past three years, Salzburg’s title winning margin has ranged from 12 to 15 points. As in 2022, their nearest challengers should be Sturm Graz.

The crowds in Austria are at a 10-year high, the average in the Bundesliga is currently 7,226 compared to 5,052 in the regular season in 2021-22. Rapid are the biggest attraction with attendances of 18,300 while Sturm (12,500), Salzburg (11,500) and Austria Wien (10,800) are also in five figures. The Wien derby takes place on March 19, the last game for both clubs in the initial programme, which will mean another healthy gate.

Salzburg, as ever, have some bright young players who are attracting the attention of clubs in Germany and England. Slovenian Benjamin Šeško is just 19 but his performances have already marked him as a star of the future. The statistics underline the impact he has made – a goal involvement every 89 minutes and 0.76 goals per 90 minutes. He also has a remarkable physical presence. Another youngster, the 20 year-old Croatian Luka Sučić, is being touted as “the new Modric”, such is the impression he has made so far. And then there’s 18 year-old Dijon Kameri, who was nurtured from within the club’s youth system, a midfielder of enormous promise according to Salzburg watchers.

RB Salzburg’s so-called “player factory” not only ranks among the top three sources for “big five” league clubs, but also ensures that the club itself has the youngest average age (22.4 years) among Austrian Bundesliga clubs. They also have the highest percentage of foreign players (63.7%) in their squad. Salzburg have developed a strategy for recruiting youngsters in the mid-to-late teens and then selling them for handsome profits. Others are following this approach, but Salzburg’s big advantage is their ownership and the multi-club model in which they operate.

Austrian teams failed to make much progress in Europe this season. Salzburg were third in their Champions League group behind Chelsea and AC Milan and then lost to Roma in the Europa League. Sturm Graz were knocked out of the Champions League before the group phase and in the Europa League finished fourth in their group. Austria Wien were thrashed by Fenerbahce in the Europa play-off round and were bottom of their Conference group. Rapid Wien were beaten by Liechtenstein’s Vaduz of all people in the Conference play-offs.

Not many people would bet against Salzburg winning their 10th consecutive title this season. They have the resources and the strategy to ensure their squad keeps churning-out talented young players. Their transfer spend over the past 10 years has totalled € 167 million and their net market activity is a positive of € 373 million, which dwarfs the rest of the Bundesliga and is bettered only by Benfica, Ajax and Porto in Europe. This might not make them especially popular in their home market and doesn’t speak well for the overall competiveness of Austrian domestic football, but nobody can deny that they have created a model that is very effective.

Portugal: Benfica and Porto flying the flag in Europe

BENFICA continued their impressive season at home and abroad with a 2-0 victory in Bruges, gaining a vital advantage in the first leg of their UEFA Champions League round of 16 tie. Although there’s the second game to come, Benfica have, unless something goes horribly wrong, one foot in the quarter-finals for the second consecutive season. Nobody predicted they would progress this far as their group stage opponents included Paris Saint-Germain and Juventus, but they finished top and went unbeaten.

Benfica, who finished third in the Primeira Liga last season, are top this time around and have lost once in 20 games, a surprise 3-0 defeat at the hands of Braga. Coach Roger Schmidt, who took over  in May 2022, has revived the club and they have already scored over 50 goals in 20 games. Strikers Gonçalo Ramos and João Mario have scored 35 goals between them across all competitions.

Off the pitch, Benfica have also been doing sound business in 2022-23. In the summer, they signed midfielder Enzo Fernandez from Argentina’s River Plate for just € 10 million. After the player was part of Argentina’s World Cup triumph in Qatar, Benfica were able to sell him to cash-happy Chelsea for an eye-watering € 120 million, clearly benefitting from the post-World Cup honeymoon. In the close season 2022, the club also sold the force of nature that is Darwín Núñes to Liverpool for € 75 million.

Benfica have a business model that is generally profitable and enables them to compete on the European stage, as evidenced by their performances in the Champions League. But in the past two seasons, they have posted pre-tax losses totalling € 75 million, largely attributable to the pandemic. Their wage bill in 2021-22 was 66% of income, an improvement on 2020-21’s 103%.

Portuguese Primeira 16:02:23


The club continually shops smart in the transfer market and is very successful in luring players from South America, but it also develops young talent at their much-admired Seixal-based academy. Already the next group of players who could be sold to top clubs in Europe are being identified, such as midfielder Florentino Luís who is being tipped to earn Benfica another € 100 million fee very soon. Over the past decade, Benfica have earned more than € 700 million in profits from player sales.

Porto, who are five points behind Benfica in the Primeira Liga, have also fared well in the transfer market this season. They sold Fábio Vieira to Arsenal for € 35 million and Vitinha to Paris Saint-Germain for € 41.5 million. They also have a player that has been eyed by clubs from England in the form of 25 year-old Brazilian strike Galeno, who rejoined Porto for € 9 million from Braga a year ago. Galeno is among the leading scorers in the Primeira this season. Porto are also in last 16 of the Champions League and are up against Inter Milan. Their two defeats include a 1-0 loss at home to rivals Benfica.

Braga, who are part-owned by Qatar Sports Investments, are in third place and eight points clear of the other member of the Portuguese “big three”, Sporting Clube de Portugal, who were champions two years ago and went very close to retaining their title in 2021-22. Sporting’s manager, Rúben Amorim remains one of the most coveted coaches in Europe and at some point, the club may have to wave farewell to him. Leeds United, for example, were reported to be interested in him when they sacked Marcelo Bielsa and more recently, Jesse Marsch. Braga and Sporting both have some promising young players and in the recent transfer window, Braga sold Vítor Oliveira to Marseille for a club record € 32 million. 

Benfica have over 100 graduates from their club playing across European football with a current value of € 670 million (source: CIES Football Obervatory). Portugal is, generally, very proficient in player trading, so much so that the country is the main taker of Brazilian talent (18.9% of all Brazilian football expats) and the migratory path from Brazil to Portugal is the most travelled route in world football. The top export market for Portuguese football is England.

Given the number of players developed in Portugal and the heritage and strength of its leading clubs, there is an argument that the Primeira Liga is just as important than France’s Ligue 1. Portugal is ranked sixth at the moment among European leagues. Admittedly, there is a huge gap in Portugal between Benfica, Porto and Sporting and the rest of the league, but Portugal has two European Champions (Benfica 1961, 1962; Porto 1987, 2004) to France’s one (Marseille 1993). Much depends on TV rights in modern football and the league has just invited tenders for TV rights for 2023-24 to 2025-26. The future of Portugal’s football really hinges on a fair distribution of broadcasting revenues as much as its player trading and development skills.

The imbalances in Portuguese football can be clearly seen in the transfer activity – in the past five seasons, Benfica and Porto have spent € 347 million and € 209 million respectively, whereas a team like Maritimo could only spend € 1.8 million and their net outlay was just € 500,000. Similarly, Benfica average 55,000 at their Estádio da Luz and Porto draw almost 46,000. At the other end, Portimonense get crowds of little more than 2,000 and FC Arouca just 1,800.

Benfica and Porto have a good chance of securing a place in the quarter-finals of the Champions League, while Sporting should win through their Europa knockout play-off against Denmark’s Midtjylland. Meanwhile, in the Conference League, Braga and Serie A’s Fiorentina meet in a well balanced tie. It is not inconceivable that Portugal could have four representatives in the quarter-finals of UEFA’s three competitions.