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FC Porto's Sketchy Business Model and Beautiful Team

FC Porto runs itself as a business first and a soccer team second. Which makes it remarkable that their latest crop of mercenaries is so fun to watch.

by Colin McGowan
Apr 21 2015, 3:45pm

By Clément Bucco-Lechat via Wikimedia/Creative Commons

FC Porto are enjoyable if and only if you can put some icky aspects of the club to one side. It's concerning that each season, the roster is a moderately to drastically altered collection of mercenaries—a mélange of players on loan and others who are clearly just breezing through Lison on their way to a more lucrative gig. But while lots of clubs have high turnover from year to year, what's particularly insidious about Porto is that they don't even own many of the players ostensibly under their employ. This is a problem with their neighbors Benfica as well: in Portugal, third-party ownership is legal, which means a club doesn't have to buy all or even most of the player's economic rights in order for that player to suit up.

The effect of this is that Porto functions as a holding station as much as it does an actual soccer team. Yacine Brahimi, for instance, moved from Granada to Porto this past summer; two days after the transfer went through, Porto sold 80 percent of Brahimi's rights to Doyen Sports, an investment firm that loans money to clubs in order to help them foot transfer fees. Chief executive Nelio Lucas claims Doyen isn't in the business of determining where players go—Porto can treat Brahimi as if he is fully their player, and Doyen just wants a cut of the profit if and when he gets sold to a new club—but that's almost definitely bullshit. Apologies for the crass corporatese here, since we're talking about a human being and not a paper mill: who buys controlling interest in an asset, then is happy to let other, lesser stakeholders decide what to do with it? (Or in this case, ahem, him.) Brahimi is essentially on loan at Porto from Doyen Sports FC, no matter what Lucas says.

Read More: The Broke Soccer Team That Got Sold For One Euro, Twice

It's not as if clubs always (or ever) have players' best interests at heart. But the ambient cynicism of pro sports is more pronounced, and feels even worse, when athletes are at the whim of some shady conglomerate that has no focus other than return on investment. Porto's directors might be shrewd businessmen, but they also want to, like, win games and stuff. This would suggest that they don't see Brahimi purely as a monetary value with a mean right foot attached.

Or perhaps they do. Otherwise, they wouldn't let Doyen—or, as they have in the past, international man of skeeze Jorge Mendes—meddle in the affairs of a player who probably doesn't want to have to consult a complex flowchart to figure out who the hell his boss is. There are reasons England has outlawed third-party ownership: it's gross on its face and complicated enough beneath the surface to suggest some black hand might be pulling the strings on a player like Yacine Brahimi's career. Roman Abramovich is a crook, but at least he's got a face.

Falcao, one of many people to play soccer for and then later be sold for a profit by Porto. — Hugo Santos-USA TODAY Sports

With that said: gosh, Porto's deplorable economic approach has resulted in a fantastically fun team this season. As ever, they have a mix of young loan players from the big clubs in Spain and brash South Americans who are bound for Manchester City or Real Madrid in a couple years. (Porto's Brazilian right back Danilo is already set to join Los Blancos this summer.) Ricardo Quaresma, after years wandering the earth in search of a coach who would appreciate his talents while putting up with his hard-headedness, is expressing himself in his bombastic way in his second stint in Porto. Once every few games, Jackson Martínez produces a goal that's in and of itself an argument he's the best Colombian striker alive. Atlético Madrid loanee ?"liver Torres has always had unteachable skills—he's got a first touch that could settle an artillery shell—but at 20, his talents are coming together into an effortless creative midfielder's game. For how fast and powerful Alex Sandro is, he shouldn't also be able to caress the ball as softly as he does. It's like watching a rhinoceros play the cello, and beautifully.

It's fitting that a squad this jaggedly joyful would be dismantling the orderliness Pep Guardiola has fussily cultivated in Munich. It takes kamikaze gumption to press Bayern the way Porto did in their 3-1 opening leg Champions League quarterfinal win last Wednesday. Julen Lopetegui has trained his players to push forward in every match, to hound and attack the opposition as if they are the better team. In the Primeira Liga, this is a fine approach—Porto are second in the table, three points behind Benfica—but it's another matter to play with that imperiousness against Pep's devastating art project. Even if Porto get thrashed at the Allianz on Tuesday, they will at least return to Porto with the satisfaction of knowing they sunk a few harpoons into the Kraken's eye.

This is not to say they'll lose. The team is slightly out of its depth talent-wise going against Bayern, but they're exceedingly well coached and have a coiled-spring dangerousness that's going to haunt the Bavarian giants as they try to intricately knit themselves a pair of goals. Martínez and Quaresma will only need one or two chances between them to send Porto into the semis. Collectively, the Dragões seem to be feeling themselves so hard that they don't know they can fail.

Unlike their opponents, they will play without anxiety. Bayern have been crumbling from within while burning through the Bundesliga, which at this point must be considered their default state in the Pep Guardiola era. After 38 years with the club, the (extremely German-named) team doctor Hans-Wilhelm Muller-Wohlfahrt and his subordinates resigned shortly after the Porto defeat, essentially because Guardiola blamed the medical team for the loss. Delicate genius that he is, Pep is exceedingly difficult to get along with. Muller-Wohlfahrt's departure contributes the trend of anyone who can't get on Pep's wavelength exiting the club feeling as if they've been denigrated and bullied. This glaring flaw in their manager isn't something with which Bayern want to be reckoning as they try to correct a 1-3 deficit in their most important match of the season. Plus, they don't have much of a medical crew at the moment.

In short, the stage is set for Porto to go into Munich confidently and without fear. If it's uncertain whether they'll advance, they're sure to play with the panache that has gotten them this far. Whatever lamentable circumstances have assembled them, they're a beautiful powder keg of a team. On Tuesday, they will have an opportunity to become a great one, too.

Tagged:
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soccer
economics
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Champions League
fc porto
doyen sports fc
international business
the estimable dr. hans-wilhelm muller-wohlfahrt
treating people like assets