To loosely paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, nothing in life is certain apart from death, taxes and Portuguese footballers being expensively purchased in each and every transfer window.
This summer’s shiniest models are André Silva (to Milan) and Bernardo Silva (to Manchester City) who keep alive a lengthy tradition in which Benfica, FC Porto and Sporting Lisbon develop youth or acquire little-known players at next to no cost, then sell them on to cash-rich foreign giants for enormous profit.
Portugal hasn’t always been the febrile export market we know it today however; indeed it wasn’t until as late as the end of the 1980s that we started to see a regular flow of footballers depart the Primeira Liga for wealthier destinations.
The reasons for this were complicated. The political situation in a country that only returned to democracy in 1974 treated its football stars as propaganda ambassadors, thus transfers to Italy or Spain for world-class talent like Eusébio were dismissed out of hand. Probably as a consequence of the insular world the political situation created, Portuguese players would for many years be seen as poor travellers who struggled to adapt to different languages and cultures.
This meant that although there were still many good players within its borders, to the rest of Europe Portugal was long viewed as a profoundly unfashionable place to shop.
In the 1960s and early 1970s virtually all transfer traffic within the country was local – Portuguese clubs acquiring or selling Portuguese players from and to other Portuguese clubs, with just a few naturalised Brazilians thrown in to add some flavour. Change started to happen in the summer of 1975 on the back of the gradual liberalisation democracy brought.
Long-serving and much decorated Benfica club legends Eusébio and António Simões – by now well into their 30s – were permitted to join clubs in NASL as a reward for their service and to allow them a big payday before retirement.
More significant was the transfer of influential central defender Humberto Coelho to Paris St.Germain because, unlike his fellow departees, Coelho was just 25-year-old and still very much in his prime. He stayed in the French capital for eighteen months and while he did well individually, the team around him was poor and he yearned to go back to the familiar in Lisbon.
This was an often repeated pattern: Alhino, Diamantino Costa, Damas, Vital, Joao Alves all moved from one of Portugal’s big three to middling clubs in Spain or France, yet were eager to return home with an impolite haste having made little impact.
The 1980s saw some of the Portuguese game’s most-lauded stars start to follow the trail abroad – though not necessarily with any greater success. The biggest name yet to leave was Porto’s hugely prolific international forward Fernando Gomes, though his main motivation for leaving was internal politics rather than personal ambition. He joined Sporting Gijon but never seemed comfortable in his new environment. Two seasons later he was back at Porto.
Fernando Chalana was a dazzlingly skilful winger with Benfica and he impressed a wider audience with his performances at the 1984 European Championships. Bordeaux stepped in to sign him and make him the most expensive Portuguese export yet – at a fee of around £1m – but the move proved disastrous. Injuries, homesickness and a total breakdown in the player-club relationship took their toll and Chalana was back at Benfica by 1987.
In 1987 FC Porto became the first Portuguese club to win the European Cup for a quarter of a century and it was natural that Europe’s predators would circle around their fine team. The focus of lustful footballing directors the length and breadth of the continent was the brilliant young winger Paulo Futre and he was eventually acquired expensively and noisily by an Atlético Madrid club determined to make a splash under its new and notorious president Jésus Gil.
The Portuguese export drive continued. In 1988 Serie A took an interest for the first time as Juventus acquired Porto’s diminutive midfield playmaker Rui Barros. Portuguese clubs were by this time scouting effectively and replacing departed home-grown stars with inexpensive players from Brazil, players who in turn attracted big-money moves abroad.
In 1990 Porto’s Brazilian left back Branco joined Genoa and Benfica’s classy Brazilian central defender Aldair moved to Roma. French football retained its long-held fascination for Brazilian footballers and between 1989 and 1991 Geraldao, Ricardo Gomes and Valdo signed for Paris St.Germain and Carlos Mozer for Marseille – all moving from Benfica or FC Porto.
What had been a trickle in the 1970s became a stream in the 1980s and a river by the 1990s. Nowadays of course the flow of Portuguese (and Portuguese-based Brazilians) to richer nations has become a mighty flood.