Ricardo Carvalho, Deco, Anderson, Lucho González, Lisandro López, Bruno Alves, Raul Meireles, Falcao – just some of the star names FC Porto have sold since winning the UEFA Cup in 2003. Add to that list coaches José Mourinho and André Villas-Boas and it becomes an exodus of talent from both pitch and bench that would take its toll on any team.
Not Porto though. Having recouped in the region of €400m in transfer fees since that 2003 triumph, the club have invested wisely. Indeed, the growing clamour for their current players tells as much of a story as the 16 trophies they have lifted – including the UEFA Champions League in 2004 – since that famous night against Celtic FC in Seville.
To compete successfully against the financial muscle of sides in Spain, England and Italy, Porto have needed to be agile and fleet-footed in the transfer market. Investing in youth and giving youngsters their chance has been a key strategy since the 1980s when star man Paulo Futre joined Club Atlético de Madrid.
For fans, it may hurt to see heroes leave, yet they can place confidence in the fact that more often than not the next big thing is just around the corner. "We have to be permanently studying the youth market. This is what allows us to keep fighting, despite having a budget 20 times less in respect to income [than other leading clubs]," Porto president Jorge Nuno Pinto da Costa said. "Year after year we lose great players and then put our faith in players with great potential."
This belief has paid off. If Vítor Pereira's appointment as coach in June came as a surprise to some, it should not have. Like Mourinho and Villas-Boas before him, it is all about spotting talent, trusting it and creating the space in which it can thrive.
Rui Barros, now a scout at the Estádio do Dragão, knows all about that. The attacking midfielder was playing on loan in the second division at Varzim SC when Porto won the European Champion Clubs' Cup in 1987. Six months later he was scoring in the UEFA Super Cup against AFC Ajax to earn a move to Juventus for a Portuguese record €5m fee.
"I came to Porto when I was a junior and they decided to loan me out to gain experience," Barros said. "They called me back two years later and the rest is history. I had been playing in the second division, then all of the sudden I found myself facing the big guns in Europe. We're definitely talking about a unique club in world football. You can see that in the way new players arrive and quickly adapt, but also when they leave.
I doubt there's a former Porto player who hasn't good things to say about his time here."
Forward Hulk concurs, explaining just how important that reputation is in attracting talent to the Dragão. "Porto have lots of fans in Brazil and they follow all the games on TV," he said. "I didn't have to think twice when offered the chance to play here as it was always a dream for me to represent Porto.
I came here when I was 15 and went to a Porto match at the old Estádio das Antas. I was simply amazed by everything I saw and promised myself that one day I would wear the Porto shirt. It took seven years to fulfil that dream but I'm here now and couldn't be happier."
Porto's South American contingent will grow to 16 players when new Brazilian duo Danilo and Alex Sandro arrive, and for Barros it is as much about how the players are treated off the pitch as on it that feeds into their success. "Some South American players brought in were already playing in Europe [e.g. Fernando Belluschi and Freddy Guarín] but in other cases you have a very young player moving to a new continent, a new city, a new club. Those factors could be a serious problem but that's not the case with Porto.
Players come here and feel at home straight away. They immediately understand they have signed for a great club with a winning culture."
The knowledge that they will get the opportunity to impress on the European stage makes Porto a desirable destination for the next generation and gives the club an edge in the market – even against some of Europe's biggest sides. "The tricky part of the scouting process is that everybody is doing the same thing," Barros said. "Big clubs are always on the lookout for the next big thing so we need to be fast and accurate in our picks. A bit of luck also helps." Porto have been making their own luck for years.
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