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.