FC Porto: Europa League winners and good guys?
A version of this piece appeared on SB Nation first.
Modern football is no place for idealists. Money’s found behind most of the nice things in football. Don’t think of any team as ideal. Andre Villas Boas’ FC Porto are a long way away from representing how football would ideally work, but amongst the big boys of European football, they’re closer than most. With just one victory required, they could complete a league, cup, and Europa League treble in the week. If they do, it will be a good thing for football.
The Dragons’ on-pitch activity is exactly what most fans want. Simply, it’s full of goals – the moments of ecstasy that we all crave. Under Villas Boas, Porto have committed to pummeling teams: seeing a chance and going for it with everything they have. 2.5 goals a game across league and Europa League games speaks volumes. Coupled with defensive vulnerability, that approach has created a supply of thrilling games this season – from a 2-1 defeat of Benfica to clinch the league title, to a 3-2 defeat to Villarreal in a supposedly dead rubber last week. Porto are consistent winners, but minus the insipid games we associate with football’s result-clinchers.
That combination alone doesn’t make them worth idolising though. Their financial model qualifies them as more idealistic than most other successful clubs. They’ve made a net profit from transfers in each of the last nine seasons. They received almost £200million more for players sold than spent on them. No club in the final stages of the Champions League this term can get anywhere near that.
Behind the numbers is the notion of Porto as a self-sufficient team. We know from the logos on the players’ shirts that it is only the notion of self-sufficiency that they provide, but that alone is a relief from the billionaire interventions at the likes of Manchester City and Chelsea – the artificially stimulated successes which feel arbitrary and undeserved. Even the likes of Manchester United’s success, built on maximising advertising revenue, feels like reward for the wrong thing – business, not football acumen.
Porto’s business model carries an idealistic edge because it’s so closely linked to the ball-kicking bit of football. Running the team on profits made, primarily, from buying and selling players is close to the ideal for most fans – football funding itself. The football fantasist can, for a moment, imagine that Porto, The Team, could exist without Porto, The Profit-Focused Organisation – even if we know that’s not entirely true.
Their success comes from ingenuity – one of the few pieces of criteria accepted by idealists as deserving of success. Porto are ready to take gambles that other big teams aren’t. For every big name sold to balance the books, a string of replacement talent has always been secured. When Ricardo Quaresma was sold to Inter Milan for £21 million in 2008, they signed Hulk, top scorer in the Portuguese Liga since then, from Tokyo Verdy for £8million. The list of players they’ve sold is a list full of Europe’s biggest names, but they keep finding their replacements.
They take full advantage of generous work permit laws: buying and playing players who’ve never played in Europe before whilst other clubs look on with caution – players from Brazil; from Chile; from Japan. It was no coincidence, then, that the unfancied Uruguayan team that reached the World Cup semi-final last year contained Alvaro Perreira and Jorge Fucile: present employees of Porto. Creative decisions keep the team at the top. When the club has taken risks, they’ve been vindicated.
The appointment of the current manager, Villas Boas, demonstrates better than anything else, a willingness to look beyond the obvious in search of the right answers. At 33, and having less than one year’s worth of management experience, Porto gambled on their man, and now he’s set to win them everything.
Inevitably, not every risk comes off, but this helps contextualise Porto’s successes. Luis Fabiano’s short time at Porto was a footballing failure: he scored three goals in his only season at the club. It’s that possibility of failure which makes success more significant when it happens. It ensures that superb players like Hulk and Radamel Falcao aren’t taken for granted. It makes a Europa League final an achievement, not a given. It shows you how good a job FC Porto are doing the rest of the time.
Everything in football is tainted by money – capitalism is impossible to contain – but Porto come close to making you forget that. As much as they are a part of the whole wretched business of football, they at least give nods to fairness and creativity, and, best of all, you can try and pretend that it’s not all about the money.