Why the inevitable decimation of Porto’s team is an all too familiar story
“Where there’s a carcass, there will be vultures”
The story is one you’ll recognise. An upstart team with some promising players makes an impression and quickly becomes ravaged by the circling behemoths. If you don’t have money, if you don’t have power, if you don’t have prestige, it’s only a matter of time before Europe’s elite ruthlessly come knocking. If you can’t beat them, buy everything they possess.
The impression that F.C. Porto made last year was always likely to pique the interests of the vultures. They secured a treble and went unbeaten in the league, smashing multiple records in the process. They had a young, bright manager, a talented squad and a real chance of winning next year’s Champions League. Then Chelsea came knocking and the door predictably opened.
Porto know the price of success all too well. They were the last major surprise winners of the Champions League when in 2004, José Mourinho team’s dispatched Monaco with consummate ease. His starting line up had ten Portuguese players and although most were acquired, it was a reflection of the country’s strength at the time. But Roman Abramovich and Chelsea’s millions soon plucked Porto’s ripest elements, starting with Mourinho himself.
Of Porto’s line up that evening, Paulo Ferreira, Pedro Mendes, Deco and Ricardo Carvalho soon followed Mourinho out of the door. Maniche and Costinha lasted 12 more months, Derlei slightly less, Carlos Alberto slightly longer. It was a similar story for Monaco. Fernando Morientes, Jérôme Rothen, Ludovic Giuly, Édouard Cissé, Hugo Ibarra and Dado Pršo all played that night and didn’t return for the next season.
The Valencia squad which reached back-to-back Champions League finals in 2000 and 2001 was also picked apart, bit by bit. After reaching the first, promising midfielders Javier Farinós and Gerard went to Inter and Barcelona respectively. They were also unable to keep hold of Claudio López, the Argentine moving to, at the time, big spending Lazio. After the next final two more important cogs were displaced. Manager Héctor Cúper was snapped up by Inter and the much sought after Gaizka Mendieta joined Lazio.
Valencia’s financial problems have been well documented but they managed to win the next two La Ligas and the 2004 UEFA Cup under Rafa Benítez. Had Valencia kept that squad together, the landscape of La Liga may look very different today.
Other back-to-back finalists Ajax suffered a similar dissection. The squad which won in 1995 immediately lost Michael Reiziger to Milan and Clarence Seedorf to Sampdoria to add to Frank Rijkaard’s retirement. But it took another 12 months for them to lose the core of that side.
After the 1996 final, when Ajax were beaten by Juventus on penalties, Winston Bogarde, Patrick Kluivert, Edgar Davids and Nwankwo Kanu swapped Amsterdam for Milan, Kanu to Inter, the others to A.C. Milan. Finidi George opted for Spain and Real Betis and Marc Overmars, who missed the final through injury, showed up at Arsenal. Manager Louis van Gaal went to Barcelona just 12 months later. Three years after the final, none of 1996’s starting line-up, including Edwin van der Sar, the de Boers and Jari Litmanen, remained.
Ajax’s golden generation flew from the nest and they’ve never returned to the heights of that period in the mid-90s. Europe was surely theirs for the taking had that generation stayed together.
As Porto are about to prove, it’s not just Champions League finalists who are vulnerable to the bigger vultures. The excitement around the Zenit St. Petersburg team who lit up the 2008 UEFA Cup was soon curbed after key figures Andrei Arshavin, Anatoliy Tymoshchuk and Pavel Pogrebnyak left Russia within 12 months.
To a lesser extent Marseille, who reached the 2004 final, lost their impetus when Mathieu Flamini and Didier Drogba came to the Premier League. Alaves, who enthralled us all with a magnificent final against Liverpool back in 2001, soon lost their lynchpins Javi Moreno and Cosmin Contra to Milan.
The Parma side that won the 1999 UEFA Cup would surely have gone on to compete for major honours for many years had they remained together. Playing for them that night were Gianluigi Buffon, Lilian Thuram, Fabio Cannavaro, Roberto Sensini, Juan Sebastián Verón, Enrico Chiesa and Hernán Crespo. Sensini, Chiesa and Verón then all left and Crespo followed them the following summer, all four joining other Italian clubs. Buffon and Thuram went in 2001 before Fabio Cannavaro departed in 2003, again staying within Serie A. Unlike those involved in the Zenit and Ajax exoduses, these were not prompted by players wishing to join more established footballing leagues. Parma competed in the Champions League in 2000 so for those who initially fled, it can’t have been motivated by wanting to play at a higher level either.
For this Porto squad, who towards the end of last year looked every bit as good as every other European side, the horse bolted when Villas-Boas wound up in West London last week.
Had this Porto side stuck together, Villas-Boas, backroom staff and all, who is to say they wouldn’t have replicated Mourinho’s achievements in 2004 and followed up a UEFA Cup (now Europa League) title with club football’s grandest prize? As it is, Villas-Boas’ exit is likely to scupper any hopes of that.
The 33-year-old has his knife out and is feasting away at the Porto carcass. He’s already picked off the grisly bits, acquiring backroom staff members and now the meatier sections of Radamel Falcao, João Moutinho and Hulk are primed to be ripped off.
So instead Porto will be forced to rebuild, albeit with the coffers substantially boosted, and we will be robbed off seeing a new, exciting force try to smash the Champions League monopoly which has seen the same final repeated in the last three years. It’s all rather depressing really.