League Focus: Portugal on the rise

THE PORTUGUESE Primeira Liga could be one of the most interested title chases in Europe this season. It’s no surprise that the contenders are Porto, Sporting and Benfica, but there’s been something of a shift in the balance of power in Portugal and the club we always associate with the Iberian nation, Benfica, is struggling to keep pace with the other members of the “big three”.

Porto ended 2021 with a 3-1 victory against the Eagles of Lisbon and thus remained unbeaten in league games for the calendar year, a remarkable landmark even in such an imbalanced league. For Benfica, who replaced their manager, Jorge Jesus at the end of December, it was another blow to their sagging confidence. Prior to meeting Porto, Benfica had been beaten twice in the league, both at home and their most recent setback was at the hands of Sporting, their Lisbon rivals. But they had also qualified for the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League, no mean feat given they had Bayern Munich and Barcelona in their group and they face Ajax in February. 

There were stories that Jesus had “lost” the dressing room and that he was eyeing a return to Brazilian club Flamengo. The combination of player unrest, which came to a peak with an altercation involving club vice-skipper Pizzi and the coach, a defeat against Sporting and the cup defeat at Porto probably combined to force the Benfica management to act. 

As Jesus recently said, Benfica have to be challenging for honours, so with the league drifting away and a cup exit, two possible prizes already look beyond them. Such a situation was always going to be unpalatable for the people upstairs but even then, the parting of the ways was an emotional event, with club president Rui Costa and Jesus embracing. “I never wanted to be the problem at Benfica,” said Jesus. “I wanted to be part of the solution”.

Benfica’s solution was to appoint Nélson Veríssimo and the Porto clash was his first game in charge. Unfortunately, the 3-1 defeat was worse than it looked as Benfica were poor and are now seven points behind Porto and Sporting. 

Primeira Liga, top four


League Table as at January 1, 2022

Sporting surprised many pundits by winning the league in 2020-21, but they’re back at the top this year and the second half of the campaign is likely to be a two-way battle between the Lions and Porto for the title. Sporting also fought their way through to the last 16 of the Champions League and will meet Manchester City. This was an achievement given they lost their first two games in the group against Ajax and Borussia Dortmund. There’s a warning for Benfica as Ajax emphatically completed the double over Sporting, 5-1 and 4-2.

Sporting and Porto were recently penalised by UEFA for “non-compliance” with Financial Fair Play rules. Sporting were fined € 250,000 and Porto € 300,000. Importantly, there are two Portuguese clubs in the Champions League last 16 for only the second time in the past decade.

Porto never made the cut in the Champions League having finished third in a tough group that included Liverpool, Atlético Madrid and AC Milan. They have the consolation of Europa League football and face Lazio in the next round. Portugal have a fourth club in the knockout stages in the form of Braga, who have been drawn against Sheriff Tiraspol. 

Braga won the Taça de Portugal in 2020-21, beating Benfica in the final, and are currently in fourth place, but they are too far behind to make a title challenge. They have, however, established themselves as Portugal’s fourth club, consistently present in the upper echelons.

Portugal remains one of Europe’s best producers of talent and the top clubs have become experts at player trading, notably in bringing players from Brazil to Europe. Reigning champions Sporting, for example, are renowned as a club that develops its own players – around half dozen of their regular line-up has come through its youth set-up at some stage of their careers. Cristiano Ronaldo, of course, is a past product of Sporting’s system. Portugal, generally, is not only committed to nurturing young players, it is also good at producing top coaches.

The Premier League, in particular, has a penchant for Portuguese players. There are around 20 Portuguese among Premier squads, although nine players are employed by Wolverhampton Wanderers. The market attraction of Portugal’s best players was evidenced in Euro 2020 when only six of the 26-man squad were playing domestic football.  

Currently attracting envious glances is Sporting’s Pedro Gonçalves, who netted 23 goals in the Primeira last season from midfield. He was voted the young player of the year in both 2019-20 and 2020-21.

There is a growing feeling that the Primeira Liga is now stronger than France’s Ligue 1, which has been ranked among the top five for a few years now. Although UEFA’s coefficients would suggest France is marginally ahead of Portugal, the fact that Ligue 1 is invariably a one-horse race does indicate a lack of strength in depth. The UEFA data gives France’s top four clubs (PSG, Lille, Lyon, Marseille) and average of 60,000 points, while Portugal’s big four have an average of 56,250. Over the past five years, whenever Portuguese and French clubs have met, the Primeira Liga comes out on top with a 75% win rate.

It is not easy to envisage Portugal becoming a more democratic football landscape given the massive financial gulf between its top clubs and the rest of the Primeira Liga. Benfica, Porto and Sporting all draw big crowds, with Benfica enjoying more than 50,000 per game, but at least 12 of the 18 top flight clubs survive on 10,000 and lower. However, it is far more realistic to anticipate the big three becoming more competitive on the international stage. It might not mean that their will be a fifth Champions League title to celebrate, but for Benfica, Porto and Sporting to look the continent’s elite in the eye would be something in the modern age of football.

This Sporting life suddenly looks grand in Lisbon

SPORTING CLUBE DE Portugal are back on top for the first time since 2002, clinching their 19th league title with a 1-0 victory against Boavista. The fireworks were hitting the Lisbon night air from the start of the game – the championship wasn’t a foregone conclusion while Porto were still in with a chance, but since November, it had looked very likely that the duopoly was over – for now. Sporting now face their local rivals, Benfica, on May 15 and who could blame them if they didn’t feel just a little smug?

It’s been something of a turnaround for Sporting, who just three years ago, had to contend with a large group of “fans” ransacking their training ground and attacking players, coaches and training staff. At least one of them has said he feared for his life the day discontentment boiled over. Some players decided to terminate their contracts with the club after that incident and it also led to the removal of club president Bruno de Carvalho, a notorious character known as the “Donald Trump of Portuguese football”.

Carvalho was replaced by Federico Varandas, who vowed to change the ethos of the club, concentrating on the development of young players – the Sporting squad is one of the youngest in the Primeira Liga and they have more club-trained players than any of their domestic rivals. They also have one of the lowest levels of foreign players and are ranked among the top six “stepping stone” clubs that feed the top five leagues with talent. Portugal’s top clubs have long prioritised player trading as a key source of revenue generation. Varandas was very emotional at the final whistle, victory in the Estádio José Alvalade justifying the strategy he implemented.

For those that don’t like to see domestic football dominated by one or two clubs, Sporting’s success is a triumph for footballing democracy. Benfica and Porto have presided over football for decades, but in the past 20 years, nobody else has had a look-in. Not that the league title has ever been anything over than a battle between the two cities, of the 87 seasons, Benfica have won 37, Porto 29 and Sporting 19. Belenenses of Lisbon and Porto’s Boavista have won just one apiece. No other league has been so polarised for such a length of time.

But for Sporting to break the stranglehold is no mean feat. In 2019-20, they finished fourth, 22 points behind champions Porto and were pushed into that fourth spot by Braga on goal difference. Sporting lost their star player, Bruno Fernandes, who was sold to Manchester United for over € 50 million in January 2020. The club’s alumni also includes Luis Figo and Cristiano Ronaldo.

The change has been fairly dramatic. Porto appointed 36 year-old Braga coach Rúben Amorim as coach in March 2020 and they lost just two of their last 11 league games in 2019-20. With 32 games played, Sporting are unbeaten this term and are on course to become only the fifth team to go through a Portuguese league campaign without defeat. Benfica did it in 1972-73 and 1977-78 and Porto achieved the feat in 2010-11 and 2012-13. Amorim is seen by many as the next big Portuguese manager, following in the footsteps of José Mourinho, Nuno Espirito Santo and Jorge Jesus.

Amorim changed Sporting’s fortunes with some bargain buys. The club signed Atlético Madrid’s 33 year-old goalkeeper, Antonio Adán, on a free transfer. He has proved to be an excellent acquisition, for Adán has kept 19 clean sheets. In fact, defence has been the strong point for Sporting, who have conceded just 15 goals in 32 games. The biggest outlay was the € 16 million paid to Braga for Paulinho in February 2021. In total, Sporting have spent the equivalent of £ 26 million but they also received £ 43 million for players sold. As a comparison, Benfica spent £ 95 million and received £ 70 million and Porto paid out £ 20 million and recouped £ 68 million. Sporting’s strategy was targeted and economical. Pedro Gonçalves, who is the Primeira Liga’s top scorer, was signed for € 6.5 million from Famalicão, international João Mário joined from Inter Milan on loan and wing back Pedro Porro arrived from Manchester City on a two-year loan.

Amorim’s team have now qualified for the group stage of the 2021-22 UEFA Champions League, which means a cash windfall for the club. Their last accounts revealed that revenues totalled € 93 million and that their wage bill consumed 76% of that. The club has a high level of net debt – in 2019 amounting to € 230 million – and very little cash. The Champions League will help that situation.

In the meantime, Sporting’s fans are celebrating a victory that has been 19 years in the making. Despite the financial limitations, the future looks pretty good. Over at the Estádio da Luz and in Porto, they’re smarting!