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Benfica: footballer factory

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Benfica are proof that if the priority is selling talent, glory will always be tomorrow’s dream

Portuguese side’s hopes of European success were all but ended on Tuesday night and Owen Slot says that pattern is unlikely to change any time soon

Owen Slot

Chief Sports Writer, Lisbon

Wednesday April 12 2023, 5.00pm, The Times




Tuesday night in Lisbon and in front of us is both a football match and a question that threatens the game’s establishment: can the best football factory in the world build the best team in Europe?

This is Benfica, at home against Inter Milan. Benfica are in the chancers’ half of the Champions League draw and Inter are probably the quarter-final opposition they would have picked if they could. So Benfica fans are feeling, not unreasonably, that they could be the first Portuguese team in the final since José Mourinho’s Porto won it in 2004.

The player in whom I am most interested is Antonio Silva. He is the centre back playing with an uncanny maturity for a 19-year-old. He takes the ball forward and distributes with a striking authority. This time last year, he was in the Benfica team that won the Uefa Youth League (for under-19s), a team that thrashed Barcelona and Bayern Munich en route to the final. He got a chance in the senior side at the start of this season and has stayed there ever since.

So it is reasonable to expect the big European vultures to come for him in a shopping spree soon; if not this summer then within another year. Out of the door before him will be Gonçalo Ramos, the 21-year-old best known for supplanting Cristiano Ronaldo in the Portugal team at the World Cup and then scoring a hat-trick against Switzerland. Just this very morning, reports from Germany suggest that Bayern have a €100 million fund to buy a new striker and that Ramos is on the shortlist.

Of course, Ramos and Silva will be following Enzo Fernández, who left for Chelsea in January for £106.8 million. And to the question — can Benfica build the best team in Europe? — we had a sort of an answer in the other Champions League game on Tuesday night because Manchester City are heavily Benfica-produced. Ederson, Rúben Dias and Bernardo Silva are all Benfica products, as is João Cancelo, though he is on loan at Bayern.

It is not even a subjective observation that Benfica are the best factory in football. The International Centre for Football Studies in Neuchatel, Switzerland, recently ranked the youth academy graduates of clubs worldwide and estimated their transfer value. Benfica were top.

Fifa’s annual Global Transfer Report put together a decade’s worth of analysis at the end of the 2020-21 season that showed Benfica as the world’s top club for transfer fees received, with Portugal’s two other talent laboratories, Sporting and Porto, in second and seventh. Collectively over that decade, Portuguese clubs made a transfer market profit of $2.96 billion.



Portugal is the most extraordinary of sporting economies. How does a population of ten million people farm its talent so successfully? The answer is partly because no other sport poses the remotest challenge to football here. Plus scouting networks are rigorous. Plus there is considerable investment in facilities, education, pastoral care and coach education at the academies where the players are developed.

There is something, too, in the fact that the big three clubs are so far ahead of the rest of the field. In the 88 years of the Primeira Liga, only twice has it been won by other clubs. Thus, while Premier League teams in England are eternally loathe to blood their youngsters, the opposite is true of Benfica, Porto and Sporting because they have a number of soft fixtures each year where there is a lower risk of defeat. And they need to play their starlets, too, to prepare them for the summer and winter sales.

Portuguese clubs are also the world’s best wheeler dealers. Fifa’s Global Transfer Report last year showed that there were more transfers into Portuguese clubs than any other country in the world. Yet these, in the main, were young players bought cheap; that same report showed that the biggest transfer stream anywhere was from Brazil to Portugal; last year, 338 players followed that route.

Yet bringing players in just means there are more to sell further down the line. Portuguese clubs again made the greatest profit in the transfer market last year: $405.1 million. And that was before Fernández went to Chelsea. At the other end of the scale was the $1.60 billion lost collectively by the clubs in England.

With all that magnificent income, Benfica fans are therefore left wondering: why do we always have to keep selling? Can’t we keep Ramos and Silva and just briefly escape the cycle of build, sell, replenish, rebuild? Is the Fernández cash not enough?

Yet they are resigned to the reality that the big income streams in other big football nations — TV and sponsorship rights plus ticket sales — are a comparative trickle here. They are resigned, also, to the lack of public accountability and the steady trickle of unresolved corruption scandals. Does player-sales income really all go back into the club and not its executives’ pockets? Again, this is the deal with being a fan here: the knowledge that you can never really know and will never really find out.

So it is not uncommon to see the question being asked: what if it was different? More specifically: what would the Benfica team look like if we hadn’t had to sell? (Answer: pretty awesome). “Best of Benfica” teams regularly pop up online.

Just for now, you wonder what it might have looked like had Dias been playing in a centre-back combination with Silva against Inter. Silva’s centre-back partner is usually Nicolás Otamendi, but he was injured and without him, Morato, the Brazilian, had to step up. That’s a 21-year-old replacement coming in next to a 19-year-old; hardly ideal for a big Champions League night.


You wonder what it might have looked had Cancelo still been there, because Alexander Bah, Benfica’s first-choice right back, was injured and it would seem unlikely that Cancelo, for instance, would have allowed all that time and space for the cross which led to Inter taking the lead just after half-time.

Yet that is the deal with Benfica, and all the Portuguese big three. They don’t have a lot of depth; when an Otamendi is injured, it is regarded as an opportunity for a Morato to get some more experience so that he too might one day be a trophy sale in Portugal’s thriving market place.

These past few weeks, though, the feeling in Benfica had been that, even despite Fernández’s departure, they had a team that could compete, that it hasn’t been too whittled away by transfers out; that, with their favourable draw, maybe this year could be their year.

And that is why Tuesday night was such a painful reality check. After Inter had gone 1-0 up, Benfica attempted to energise a comeback, but actually it was Inter who got stronger. The Italian side then stretched the lead with a penalty from Romelu Lukaku, and though that was a questionable decision, there was no doubt that it was Inter who were in control. In the fourth minute of stoppage time, Ramos was played in. This was Benfica’s best chance but his low, left-footed shot didn’t adequately test the goalkeeper.

Ramos should have scored. He may have the chance to make amends in the return leg, though no one any longer thinks that this might be Benfica’s year. All we have proved is that if your football economy is so structured around selling your factory talent, your year will probably never come.

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