Fabio Coentrão And André Villas-Boas The Latest To Leave In Portugal's Talent Drain

André Villas-Boas left FC Porto for Chelsea after just one season in charge. (Photo by Joern Pollex/Bongarts/Getty Images)

The departures of Fábio Coentrão and André Villas-Boas from Benfica and Porto respectively have been making headlines across the footballing world this summer. But they are just the latest in a long line of playing and coaching talent to wave goodbye to Portugal's Primeira Liga.

Earlier this week, the President of the Liga Portuguesa de Futebol Profissional (LPFP) Fernando Gomes unveiled a report commissioned upon his appointment thirteen months ago. Compiled by the Catholic University of Porto in collaboration with Deloitte experts, the document details in stark terms the financial crisis, which has, like a malignant growth, spread throughout Portuguese football over the last decade or so.

The narrative arc of the last decade is described as ‘growth based on debt'. Since 2001, clubs in Portugal's two professionalised divisions have seen their assets double in value, from €418m to €880m. Whilst this would be cause for celebration, it is not - sadly - the complete picture. During the same period, approximately €500m worth of debt has been accumulated, the side-effects of which have forced the likes of Farense, Salgueiros, and most recently Estrela da Amadora down to the district leagues, with many others teetering on the brink of collapse.

Gomes concluded his thoughts with the somewhat grandiose declaration that ‘only those who fear the truth feel unable to change.' To which Benfica President Luís Filipe Vieira and his Porto counterpart Pinto da Costa might well have replied: what truth would that be?

The ongoing summer transfer window has been a fertile hunting ground for Portuguese-related headlines. The appointment of André Villas-Boas as Chelsea manager, and the €30m transfer of Fábio Coentrão from Benfica to Real Madrid have been afforded worldwide attention, and not simply because of the eye-watering sums of money involved. It is broadly accurate to declare that Portuguese football as a whole is in the midst of a boom period, in terms of producing both playing and coaching talent. However, much like the doubling of assets statistic quoted above, to do so would be ignoring the wider context; one that exposes the unforgiving economic imperatives at work throughout the Liga.

Even the most casual of football followers will recognise names such as Ángel Di María, David Luiz, Coentrão, Hulk, and Radamel Falcao. Whilst the latter two are still on the books at FC Porto, there is little doubt that they will, sooner or later, follow their former rivals to one of Europe's leading leagues. In many ways, the manner in which the Primeira Liga is held in thrall to the likes of the Premier League, La Liga and Serie A is based upon similar foundations as those which have traditionally separated current champions Porto, Benfica and Sporting from the rest in Portugal. Those foundations have socio-cultural roots, but at their most elemental, they all revolve around one desire: for money, or more pertinently the security that it provides, however nebulous it may be.

It was that desire which precipitated the departures of Ricardo Carvalho, Paulo Ferreira, and Deco to Chelsea and Barcelona from Porto in 2004. Led by José Mourinho, the Dragons had just established themselves as arguably the greatest Portuguese club side since Béla Guttman's Benfica of the early 1960's. Yet unlike those halcyon days, the departures of the key actors were not just considered: they were planned for. Pepe was lined up as a replacement for Carvalho, Seitaridis for Ferreira, and Diego for Deco (the less said about Gigi Delneri, the better).

One can already see a new Porto side beginning to take shape: the likes of Juan Manuel Iturbe, James Rodríguez and Kléber may not be starters immediately, but once the likes of Hulk and Falcao have departed, that trio will lead the line - until they in turn move on.

A similar preoccupation with the future can be detected in the words of Pinto da Costa at the unveiling of new coach Vítor Pereira. Da Costa declared that he had lined up Pereira as a possible successor to Villas-Boas ‘about a month' before the 33 year-old departed for Chelsea, and whilst there may be an element of exaggeration in what he said, there is little doubt that continuity is a prized commodity at the Dragão, on and off the pitch.

Whilst the majority of Porto's contemporaries are nowhere near as stable (there have at the time of writing already been close to one hundred player departures from next season's sixteen Primeira Liga participants), there is a discernible culture of adaptability that, whilst not unique to the game in Portugal, is rarely seen outside of South America.

Football, like all team sports, is a game that moves in cycles. Players come, players go; coaches come, coaches go. Whilst traditionally the três grandes have been able to insulate themselves from harsh economic realities, the monopolistic, centralising trends at work in modern football have ensured that they are no longer able to do so. They have been forced to move at a pace more in keeping with that of their peers. Portugal is no longer a place where dynasties can flourish.

It's sporting Darwinism at its most pronounced, but as the performances of Porto, Braga and Benfica in the 2011 Europa League displayed, Portugal's finest are nothing if not resilient. How will this latest flurry of departures affect them? It certainly won't be long before we find out. Machines, particularly those of the economic variety, never sleep.

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