FC Porto: Europe’s best run football club?
With the impending completion of Jackson Martinez’s transfer to Atletico Madrid, FC Porto look to extend a lucrative record in the transfer market. The Colombian is set to become the ninth player the Portuguese club has sold for over £20 million*, generating their fourth highest transfer fee received, at an estimated £25 million. As with so many of their products in recent years, Martinez will be sold at a massive profit, as they bought him for a comparably modest £6.5 million from Mexican side Chiapas. Along with Danilo’s transfer to Atletico’s city rivals Real, Porto have already pocketed nearly £50 million from Madrid clubs alone this summer.
Since the turn of the 21st century, FC Porto have made an approximate £300 million (€422 million) profit on transfers, while maintaining a high standard on-field. Despite huge profit margins, a Champions League in 2004 and two UEFA Cup/Europa League triumphs in 2003 and 2011 have established the Dragões as Europe’s 8th ranked coefficient club. For all the criticisms given to other top sides on the continent supposedly buying success, the continued competitiveness shown by Porto, and to a lesser extent their league rivals Benfica, is remarkable.
Compared to their high-spending European rivals, Porto’s recruitment policy is a lot more business-orientated as their profit figures represent. Hundreds of millions of pounds in assets income is further weighted by what is now routine Champions League qualification, which provides a €12 million (£8.5 million) set fee simply for reaching the initial group stage – a round which FC Porto have been a part of every season since winning the competition in 2004. Along with gate sales, merchandise and television rights, club president Jorge Nuno de Lima da Costa has moulded an enviable and productive business as much as a successful football club.
Variable factors allow da Costa and Porto to reap such financial benefits. In terms of Champions League qualification, their early 2000s successes have stood them in good stead to this day. Jose Mourinho’s ‘Special One’ ascent brought continued domestic supremacy from the previous decade, capitalising on Benfica’s and Sporting Lisbon’s inconsistencies, and the rest of the league’s largely disappointing level of quality and support. Of the last 25 Primeira Liga seasons, Porto have won 16 – a phenomenal record it would be difficult to find replicated anywhere else in the world, never mind another division with at least two other reputable European clubs. Such success has ensured the routine Champions League qualification already mentioned, and in the two seasons that this competition was beyond reach, Porto made up for that failing by winning the UEFA Cup / Europa League instead, while securing a return to the premiere competition for the following season.
A huge advantage teams like Porto and Benfica have over a lot of other European clubs is Portugal’s unhinged quota on foreign players. Unlike other top divisions, international players do not require work permits to play in the Primeira Liga, meaning many up and coming South Americans see it as an easier way of making a big career step-up in Europe. Porto’s squad currently contains eleven Central and South American players, as well as six Africans, underlining the allowance Portuguese ruling gives for attracting a wealth of international talent. Along with what has time and again proved to be an excellent international scouting system, Porto are able to buy relatively cheap and unknown prodigies from the likes of Brazil and Colombia, develop them into hot properties over two or three seasons, and then sell for huge profits. This tried and tested policy is reflected in Porto’s list of record transfer sales – following this summer’s Danilo and Jackson sales, their top six record fees received for players were all for South Americans.
That being said, while Portugal is a favourable destination with its laid back rules on international players, the country is also Porto’s biggest hindrance. The club are a classic case of the ‘big fish in a small pond’ cliché; one with the historical reputation of top European sides like Real Madrid and Barcelona in neighbouring Spain, but without sufficient support in the league they are in to become a truly internationally renowned brand. Aside from Benfica and, to a lesser extent, Sporting Lisbon, the Portuguese Primeira Liga is largely a wasteland of financial hardship, small fan bases and questionable playing quality, similarly to Celtic in the Scottish Premiership closer to home. For that reason, Porto and Benfica have to rely on selling players at big fees in order to make up for the lack of revenue from the likes of ticket sales, commercial products and media broadcasters that continental rivals in Spain, England and the likes take for granted. Profit proportions accounted for by player sales at FC Porto are regularly about 30-40% of their yearly total; the vast majority of teams they face off against in the Champions League each season have made regular losses in the transfer market each year. This, of course, is a huge problem for the club’s prospects of a long-term challenge to establish itself among European elite – with little chance of television money deals and thus global enterprise expanding, Porto will have to continue to develop and sell their brightest talents instead of keeping them. Indeed, a list of Porto’s former players this past decade and a half is mouth-watering: the likes of Radamel Falcao, Joao Moutinho, Ricardo Carvalho, Deco, Hulk… the premium list goes on and on.
However, as stated, FC Porto do indeed challenge at the serious end of every competition they compete in almost every season. Champions League knock-out appearances are expected and regularly delivered, while a formidable nine league titles have been won since 2002/03. The players required to keep the transfer train running smoothly continue to be produced, this summer being no exception, while marquee signings like Iker Casillas and Giannelli Imbula are attainable in order to meet the fans’ expectations for proven quality. Despite the constant comings and goings at the Estadio do, the grooming required to produce cash-flow talents keeps the action on the pitch refreshing and exciting to watch; the team is usually overseen by a young and ambitious manager too, such as pre-Special One Jose Mourinho, pre-Chelsea disaster Andre Villas-Boas, and presently Julen Lopetegui; thus the 21st century Porto teams have been largely associated with an open and attacking style most neutrals can enjoy.
To simply call FC Porto a ‘Moneyball’ club – one that is only interested in the financial gain to be sought from soccer – is an unfair accusation. While da Costa and his club reap the rewards of so many regular big-profit sales, the ethos instilled within the club for an entertaining brand of football is maintained. While clubs from Europe’s ‘Big Five’ divisions continue to spend the greatest money proportions every year, it is important to remember that clubs like FC Porto still exist, though very rarely: a firm business model coupled with enjoyable and successful on-pitch results. In that respect and from an outward perspective, Porto are undoubtedly one of the most effectively run football clubs in Europe and around the world.
* – All monetary figures based on data from transfermarkt.com
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