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Why Porto and Benfica buy from South America

The two Portuguese giants made huge profits on players like Hulk, Falcao, James Rodriguez and Angel Di Maria.

FC Porto's colombian Radamel Falcao (L) : News Photo
Falcao and Hulk made their name at Porto

Modern day football and footballers are akin to the entertainment industry and the actors/musicians that make up that industry. Footballers have it all – the money, the glamour, hobnobbing with the rich and famous, and finding themselves on anything and everything sellable.

Football is now a business. A business that lifts players to the top of the world in no time, brings them the adulation and the wealth, but also drops them from the extreme heights of their stardom when things go sour for the player; a ruthless industry unlike any other.

Like most industries, there are a few who have inherited wealth or made their wealth through hard struggles. The giants of the football industry are well known – Barcelona, Real Madrid, the two Manchester clubs, Chelsea, and a few other privileged clubs, who’ve either bought their way to the top or won their way to the top.

There are also the shrewd ones, who may not have had continental success, but have built an empire at home by their clever dealings.

The Portuguese – namely Porto and Benfica, have mastered the art of making ‘something out of nothing’. The two giants of Portuguese football, along with Sporting Lisbon, have won the Portuguese Primeira Liga an incredible 80 times between them; the league has been won by two other teams apart from the ‘Big Three’ of Portugal just twice – once each by Belenenses and Boavista.

The two giants of Portuguese football

Benfica and Porto have dominated the Primeira Liga the past 15 or so years, with either team winning the league since 2002. 

Apart from winning and dominating their league, the two have also unearthed several quality players. Hulk, Falcao, James Rodriguez, Danilo, Alex Sandro, Anderson – these are just a few of the players that Porto have signed in the past couple of years.

A common denominator with all these players is that they were brought in by Porto for a small sum of money from South America and were later sold to Europe’s giants for a sizable profit. 

Porto, themselves, have made over a whopping €600 million in player sales since 2004! 

Angel di Maria and David Luiz
Angel Di Maria and Falcao played at Benfica before big-money moves

Benfica have also made huge profits from the sale of players like Angel Di Maria, David Luiz, Gaitan, Ramires, and Enzo Peres in the recent past.

Why do the two clubs look towards South America to buy players? Well, for one, South American players, historically, have been much more skilful, ridiculously talented and have tremendous guile compared to their European counterparts. 

But, more importantly, for clubs like Porto and Benfica, the transfer fees for South American players is much lesser than the European players, who have a high price tag on them. The two Portuguese clubs also have another method of buying players on the cheap – third-party ownership.

Third-party ownership – Portuguese football’s trump card 

As the name suggests, third-party ownership refers to an investor or agent owning a portion of the player’s economic rights. Clubs like Porto would have to pay a small amount to secure the services of the player and then sell him off to a bigger club for a much larger price.

Third-party ownership has been banned in English football since 2008 after the Carlos Tevez-Javier Mascherano fiasco, where two companies owned the rights of the players. 

UEFA and FIFA have called for a ban on third-party ownership and have urged European clubs to not be involved in such dealings.

Not all in the game are in favour of a ban on third-party ownership, one among them being super agent Jorge Mendes. Mendes represents some of the biggest names in football including the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, James Rodriguez, David de Gea and more such big names.

Jose Mourinho Visits Shanghai : News Photo
Jorge Mendes’ client list includes James Rodriguez, Angel Di Maria and Falcao

The Portuguese agent has made a living by bringing unknown South American players to Europe and making a profit on their sale and he was critical of the third-party ownership ban last year:

"It's illegal, completely illegal, illegal, illegal, both things illegal," Mendes said in an interview with Reuters. "Most of the people don't know what they are talking about. You don't have the right to stop a player to come and have a better job and they are doing it. You are stopping them and this is not legal."

He went on to state that clubs like Benfica and Porto, and Spanish club, Atletico Madrid – all three clubs who have brought in quality players for a bargain using the third-party route – could never compete with big guns in Europe like Barcelona and Manchester United 

"Benfica and Porto don't get more than €18 million per year from TV. In England, a small club gets €80 million or €90 million. They don't have the right to improve or to find a way to improve? You are killing the competition, killing it. Those clubs Benfica and Porto were playing in the Champions League, doing very well, performing very well but they will not achieve the same level, completely impossible. In Spain the same. Atletico Madrid without it, they would have never won the league, never, completely impossible,” said a despondent Mendes.

The Porto and Benfica transfer model

The buying of players from South America using the third-party ownership has been financially beneficial for Benfica and Porto. Benfica, for example, bought Angel Di Maria for a sum total of €8 million in 2007 and was sold three years later in June 2010 for three times the transfer fee paid. 

An even lesser sum was paid for current Chelsea player David Luiz, who was bought by Benfica for a paltry sum of €1.6 million, his economic rights were sold to a third party later on, and then he transferred to Chelsea for €25 million. 

But, using third-party rights to secure players on the cheap cannot be possible without a far-flung scouting network. Both Portuguese clubs employ several scouts across South America and pick talented players for a small sum.

But not all players bought by them from South America end up being superstars like Falcao or Di Maria, many players who are bought and loaned out several times for their development, end up going under the radar and into obscurity.

Another aspect which favours Portuguese clubs in bringing in South American players is the work permit regulations in the country. Unlike in England where players from EU nations do not need a work permit, those from outside the EU do have to procure a work permit, a common snag in many transfer dealings. Clubs in Portugal do not face issues regarding work permit and do not need a work permit even if they are from outside the EU region, which works wonderfully for South American players.

Cultural and lifestyle similarities

Portugal is the gateway for quality players and future stars of the world because of another reason – similarities in culture and language. Portuguese culture is similar to South American culture and players from these nations adapt much easily in Portugal than any other European nation.

Weather, language and culture play a huge part in a foreign players adaptation to a new league, and it is often said that a player’s off-the-field matters will have a major influence on their performance on the pitch, which makes a league like the Portuguese league an ideal start to a footballer’s European journey.

Manchester United v Arsenal - FA Cup Quarter Final : News Photo
di Maria had a poor spell at Manchester United

It is often underestimated how tough it is for players from South America to adapt to the lifestyle and culture of European countries. Argentinian winger, Angel Di Maria, admitted that he struggled in his spell at Manchester United due to Manchester’s dreadful weather and also faced a language barrier, which showed in his performances on the field.

Now in sunny France with Paris Saint-Germain, the former Real Madrid man is back to his best.

The future

The buying of South American talents over local ones has been controversial and criticised by pundits and followers of Portuguese football as homegrown players are often overlooked, hindering the development of talented players in the country. 

Football experts in Portugal have called for an implementation of the ‘6+5’ rule, where each team must have 6 players eligible to represent the national team in the playing XI. This rule, if brought in, will reduce the influx of foreign players into the league and help in the development of homegrown talent.

But, the Portuguese football association has not hinted about any change in rules or in the ban of third-party ownership, which means South American players of the class of Di Maria and Falcao will land on the shores of Portugal and make an impact on European and world football.

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