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

PWDLFAPtsg.d.
1Porto16142041944+32
2Sporting16142030744+23
3Benfica161213471537+32
4Braga16943301631+15

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.

16 football clubs sitting outside the elite

SHOULD EUROPEAN football ever morph into a super league structure, the landscape will be substantially changed, no matter how any new league might manifest itself. For the past decade, a set of global, elite players have evolved, but beneath the top layer, there are a number of clubs who have scale and presence, some with back stories that belong to a more democratic age.

Some of these glorious names may be dominant forces in their own backyard but do not have the financial clout to compete with Europe’s gargantuan institutions. Others were once feared names across the continent, metropolitan clubs from major cities such as Lisbon, Amsterdam, Rome, Rotterdam and Glasgow.

There will come a time when the football-watching public becomes tired of a system where the same teams win year-after-year. Nobody really enjoys monopolies or duopolies and when a club that has a rich European heritage suddenly finds itself “smaller” than a provincial outfit with very little historical success that has been elevated by geography and commerce, the very definition of “success” has to be questioned.

The cult of celebrity and aspiration, often via the double-edged sword of social media, has created a world where the shiny, noisy and glamorous rise to the surface. In football, it’s no different. And yet, away from the screaming headlines, the incessant well-scripted public relations and media hunger, there are dozens of clubs who remain the most important thing in the daily lives of so many.

Alongside the profile of the elite clubs, their performance underscores their status in the new world order of football. The 2003-04 season can be counted as “year zero” given it represents the beginning of Roman Abramovich’s reign at Chelsea, a moment in time as important as the inauguration of the Premier League, for it effectively provided the blueprint for modern club ownership. Since then, 13 of the 18 UEFA Champions League finals have been played between two clubs from the Super League 12. To add further fuel to the fire of debate,  41 European Cup/Champions Leagues have been won by these 12 clubs and a further six by Bayern Munich. That’s 47 of the 66 finals.

There have been just 22 winners since the competition began in 1955-56, and of these, half a dozen would be on many lists of clubs who have power and influence, not to mention resources. Let’s not forget that financial strength can be a fleeting benefit and the current problems of Barcelona remind everyone not to take anything for granted. 

So, let’s take a look at the clubs that could fill a second division of a Super League.

Ajax 
Although the Netherlands is a small market compared to the “big five” leagues and does not benefit to the same extent as its peers as commanding a huge TV deal, Ajax is a club with cachet, influence and heritage. Their business model demands that they produce players that can be sold in the market, even though they can call on an average crowd of well over 50,000 at the Johan Cruyff Arena. Periodically, they produce outstanding teams, but sustainability is a problem. Nevertheless, the time lag between golden generations seems to be getting shorter for the ultimate “stepping stone” club.

Atalanta
One of the surprises of Italian football, finishing in the top four in four of the last five seasons in Serie A. Atalanta, from Bergamo, have not won many major honours, but they are not far away from becoming one of Italy’s most progressive clubs. Their biggest problem may be of attaining sufficient scale to become more competitive.

Benfica
Like Ajax, Benfica are at the forefront of their domestic scene and also have a reputation for player development and trading. They also have strong links with South America and relationships with intermediaries. They attract huge crowds at their Estádio da Luz and the club is one of most widely supported around the world. Twice winners of the European Cup, Benfica have not competed at the highest level for some time, but they still qualify for the group stage of the Champions League on a regular basis.

Celtic
European Cup winners in 1967, Celtic are a huge club with massive support and an intsense rivalry with their Glasgow neighbours, Rangers. Although the days when Europe feared the green and white hooped shirts may be long gone, Celtic have enjoyed protracted success over the past decade. Their presence should be greater, but the relative lack of strength in the Scottish game does not help their cause.

Everton
A lack of a trophy for a quarter of a century does not help Everton, whose position in the English game has declined substantially since the 1980s. The future, however, could be much brighter when the club moves to a new stadium that could transform Everton and make them contenders for major honours.

Leicester City
Leicester’s time may have arrived as a pretender for the “big six” in England. They won the FA Cup in 2021 and the Premier League in 2016 and have a reputation for being well-run. They also have owners who have endeared themselves to the local community, as evidenced when their chairman was tragically killed in a helicopter crash at the King Power stadium. Leicester have certainly moved up a level and are no longer small in any way.

Napoli
One of Italy’s most intense football cities, Naples has only celebrated two Serie A title wins (1987 and 1990, in the Maradona era), but they’ve been one of the most consistent teams over the past decade. They have been runners-up four times in 10 years, each time losing out to Juventus.

Olympique Lyonnais
A club that has had its problems, but enjoying big crowds of 48,000-plus and a position of some influence. Founder members of the European Club Association and the so-called G-14.
Although they have been cast into the shadows by the rise of Paris Saint-Germain, Lyon have the potential to be far more successful. Their last league title was won in 2008.

Olympique Marseille
The only French club to lift the Champions League, OM last won the Ligue 1 in 2010. Owned by American businessman Frank McCourt, they enjoy 50,000-plus crowds at the Stade Vélodrome but have been in the shadow of PSG for the past decade. In the right circumstances, they could be a huge club once more.

Porto
Porto have also won the Champions League twice and although like Benfica, they are experts at player trading and nurturing talent, this aspect of their business model enables them to rub shoulders with the elite. They are well supported at their Estádio do Dragão, drawing 35,000 to most home games in normal circumstances. Porto, like their home city, is a vibrant club that has produced a number of top players in recent years.

RB Leipzig
The controversial club from the old East German territory, RB Leipzig are a well-run organisation that attempts to nurture young players. Despite this, they continue to attract criticism for their ownership model, which is misaligned to the German 50+1 structure. They have yet to win a major trophy, but their league record is very consistent, four top three finishes in five Bundesliga seasons.

Roma
Another underachieving club, Roma now have José Mourinho as their coach with the aim of competing for the Italian title. Owned by the US Friedkin Group, Roma had hoped to launch a new stadium project but at the start of 2021, it was shelved. The club’s last major success was their Coppa Italia victory in 2008, their last Scudetto in 2001.

Sevilla
Despite only one La Liga title to their name (1945-46), Sevilla have an outstanding record in European football in the 21st century, winning no less than six Europa Leagues, the most recent being secured in 2020. Well supported in a passionate football city, Sevilla have been remarkably consistent, finishing no lower than seventh and in fourth place on three occasions in five years.

Valencia
For a long time, a club that was ranked number four in Spain, Valencia have worked with their financial problems and have strong, devoted support. Their iconic Mestalla stadium may have a limited lifespan, but they regularly draw 40,000. Their last league title was in 2004 and they won the Copa del Rey in 2019. The club also has a rich European history.

West Ham United
One of English football’s most loved clubs is also one of their biggest under-achievers. They have won three FA Cups and one European prize in their long history and rarely challenge at the top end of the league. However, now they are drawing 60,000 to the London Stadium, West Ham could be on the brink of a breakthrough. The current owners are not especially popular, but the arrival of Daniel Kretinsky, who recent bought a 27% stake in the club, could be significant.

Zenit St. Petersburg
Backed by Gazprom, Russia’s biggest company, Zenit should be more competitive on the European stage. They have huge support, averaging 48,000 at the Krestovsky Stadium and have dominated Russian football in recent years, winning the league for the past three years.

Honourable mentions: Shakhtar Donetsk, Eintracht Frankfurt, PSV Eindhoven, Red Bull Salzburg, Rennes, Sporting Lisbon, Bayer Leverkusen, Wolfsburg, Besiktas and Nice.

This list is by no means prescriptive and there are many ways to slice and dice the second tier of elite European football. You may have your own list.