Photo: Wikipedia Commons/Alface

Photo: Wikipedia Commons/Alface

Benfica has the dubious distinction of having played the fewest Portuguese nationals of any team so far this campaign, this according to the union representing players in the Portuguese league.

Benfica manager Jorge Jesus responded to this report on Saturday to journalists in his typical combative style: “We are a country of immigrants, stop it with your tricks.” The findings came as no surprise.

In the online Portuguese expatriate community, in which I like to say I am a part of, it has been slightly mistranslated by some people wanting, at least in part to make Jorge Jesus look worse than he probably should be.

But there are many things worth discussing here. First, what exactly Jorge Jesus said and what he meant. And second, what it means for Portuguese futebol in general.

“My primary concern is not having players of quality. Therefore, their nationality matters little to me. The world has changed with globalization and the labour market has changed because of it. Futebol is the same,” Jesus said.

“In Portugal we cannot just develop Portuguese players. We have to develop Portuguese and foreigners in order to be competitive in Portugal and in European competitions.”

This is the usual argument that Jorge Jesus and others often use when asked about the lack of Portuguese players on their rosters. Jesus is stating that Portugal alone, as many good players as it produces cannot supply Benfica and other clubs to compete in Europe.

This would be a fair argument except, it ignores the fact that many young Portuguese players have not been given a fair opportunity to flourish for Benfica and other Portuguese clubs.

The examples are numerous. Paços de Ferreira’s midfielder Josue was a promising youth player with Porto but never received his chance with the senior club. In 2011, he was allowed to leave on a free transfer and has become a big part of a surprising Paços de Ferreira team this year.

Benfica recently signed Portuguese midfielder Diogo Rosado on loan from English side Blackburn Rovers. Rosado used to belong to the Sporting academy. After showing great potential on loan at Feirense last year he realized his chances with the Leões would be limited and signed with the English club.

And numerous other examples exists. So, how can we assure that our young players get a chance? Fact is, foreign players or not, 16 Portuguese-based clubs compete in a Portuguese league in order to earn the right to call themselves Portuguese champions.

“That question belongs in the past, it is no longer the time of D. Afonso Henriques but of our ex-colonies, when it was possible to get players born in Angola and Moçambique. In the 80s, Benfica had a majority of Portuguese players from there. Today, it is not like that,” Jesus continued.

Jesus is arguing here that Portugal used to have a supply of good players from its former colonies who would play for Portugal internationally. He says this is no longer the case.

But this is difficult to believe considering the makeup of the current Seleção. Nani, Nelson, and Rolando were born in Cape Verde. Pepe was born in Brazil. Bruno Alves’ father was Brazilian. Manuel Fernandes and Silvestre Varela were born in Lisbon but have African heritage. Young striker Éder was born in Guinea-Bissau.

It is difficult to see this argument holding up, especially since many of Portugal’s youth squads are made up of players of African heritage.

“Now we look at the best clubs in the world, there are only one or two players from that country playing. I look to find players with the intention of developing them, regardless of their nationality.”

This is only partly true, but Jesus is not wrong on this account. Many teams like Manchester City, Chelsea, Real Madrid and others do not field many players from the country they are based. However, FC Barcelona, Juventus, Bayern Munich do field more nationals.

“It is not possible for Benfica, Sporting and FC Porto to have a majority of Portuguese players. When you start to pay attention to those who begin to emerge, they usually have already gone abroad. With players leaving Portugal at 16, 17 and 18 years of age there are less players to recruit.”

Again, this is a bit of a red herring, an argument designed to lure someone away from a logical conclusion. The fact is that many quality Portuguese players do not leave at that age. Cristiano Ronaldo left at age 19 but he is the exception. Manchester City’s Marcos Lopes left Benfica’s academy at age 16.

Most quality players usually play in their domestic leagues to earn playing time and experience before they move on to a bigger stage. Raul Meireles, Miguel Veloso, Bruno Alves, Fabio Coentrao, Pepe and others are just some of the examples. Porto’s Joao Moutinho seems destined to be the next to move on.

“Those born in Portugal usually leave at a young age, because others recognize their quality. We understand that is the reality and we have to work around that. We are a country of immigrants, and we export workers all over the world. Are the Portuguese the only people allowed to work in Portugal? Stop it with your tricks,” Jesus added.

In terms of what this all means, it is first important to consider the benefits of signing young promising foreign players, both financially and on the pitch.

FC Porto and Benfica have been successful at finding promising players mainly from South America, developing them and selling them for a big price. This makes these clubs competitive and raises the profile of the domestic league as well. Players like Ramires, Angel di Maria, and others have raised the profile of Portuguese futebol no doubt.

But the principal point of contention is whether these players hinder the development of Portuguese nationals. And what if any impact does this have on the Seleção. Somewhere a balance has to be found.

Clubs like Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, FC Barcelona and Juventus have been successful through a combination on three factors: develop good players through your academy, sign good domestic players from lower teams and fill the remaining deficiencies in your line-up with at least a few good foreign players.

This is the fine balance I have always advocated for the Portuguese league. Right now, there just is not enough evidence to suggest that the three big clubs of Portuguese futebol are heading in that direction.

This recent criticism from Portuguese media and fans about Jorge Jesus’ perceived lack of interest in developing Portuguese players is nothing new. But, so far this season, Jesus has shown an interest in some promising young players. Defender Andre Almeida, midfielder Andre Gomes and Roderick Miranda have all been signed to long term deals. Plus, forward Rui Fonte was signed from Espanyol.

Portuguese champions FC Porto have used Joao Moutinho and Silvestre Varela regularly this season, but manager Vitor Pereira has shown little interest in using players from its junior side. Though 20-year-old Portuguese midfielder Tozé has been on the bench for the last few games.

At Sporting Lisbon, manager Jesualdo Ferreira has been using more Portuguese players than his predecessors. Rui Patricio, Adrien Silva, and Joãozinho have seen regular team action. Ferreira has even given young players from its prestigious academy some game time in recent matches, including Andre Martins, Pedro Mendes, and Ricardo Esgaio.

There are some examples, but it is just too early to come to any logical conclusions. The economic crisis that is still ravaging the country have made it harder for some Portuguese clubs to do business. Sporting Lisbon in particular is struggling under a pile of debt, partly due to bad foreign signings in current president Godinho Lopes’ time.

So perhaps, it will be these market forces that will determine the future of Portuguese futebol going forward.

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