FC Porto, The Big Five and the death of European club competition

Paulo Ferreira, Ricardo Carvalho, Deco, Maniche, Gael Givet, Patrice Evra, Ludovic Giuly, Fernando Morientes, Jerome Rothen. In the 2004 UEFA Champions League final, all of the above played in this final for surprise finalists, AS Monaco and FC Porto. The 2004 Final was a “Final of Intrigue”.

Some of the above were up and coming players tipped for a bright future (Ferreira, Deco, Carvalho, Evra). Some of the others used their clubs’ runs to the final as an opportunity to revive their once promising careers (Morientes, Maniche and Rothen). There was even intrigue about both managers, Jose Mourinho of Porto and Didier Deschamps of Monaco, both at the time amongst the new breed of young promising managers. It was a final dominated by Mourinho’s Porto, who ran out 3-0 winners.

Many saw this victory at the time as evidence that the underdog team from outside of the so-called “Big Five” European leagues of England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain can still compete for the big European trophies. However, with each passing day, Porto’s shock 2004 Champions League triumph is resembling more and more a twilight moment, the last triumph of the underdog in European football.

Economically Outgunned

The ‘Big Five’ have always historically dominated European competition, however, this dominance is taking a new turn due to huge new TV deals signed over the past few years. According to data taken in 2015, the average broadcast revenue per club in each of these leagues amounted to the following amounts – England (EUR 108 million), Italy (EUR 47.7 million), Spain (EUR 36.7 million), Germany (EUR 36.1 million) and France (EUR 24.9 million). The league with the next highest figure is Turkey whose clubs take home an average EUR 16.5 million each.

What makes for even grimmer reading for those clubs outside of the dominant leagues is that some of these figures have since been usurped. In June 2016, the Bundesliga agreed an improved EUR 4.64 billion TV deal over four seasons from 2017-18 onwards. This new deal increases the share from broadcasting each club will receive to EUR 64.44 million per season, nearly double the amount of the previous deal.

Furthermore, this summer, France’s Ligue 1, signed a huge new TV contract worth EUR 4.612 billion over four seasons from 2020-2024.

Drowning in Debt

Another huge problem encountered by those outside of the Big Five European leagues is debt. Portugal’s SL Benfica are one of the strongest sides outside of the Big Five leagues. However, financially, the club is severely crippled in its attempts to challenge the elite of European football.

According to an article by Spanish sports paper AS in January 2017, Benfica was the second most indebted club in European football, in the red to the tune of EUR 336 million. In March 2018, Turkish giants Galatasaray announced their financial figures which showed debts totalling EUR 591 million; whilst a quick glance at city rival’s Fenerbache’s most recent accounts show a debt totalling EUR 621 million.

Of course, some of Europe’s elite clubs are also heavily indebted, the aforementioned AS article cites Manchester United, Inter Milan, AC Milan, Juventus and Roma as also carrying huge debts over EUR 200 million.

However, all these teams play in leagues with a much higher broadcasting revenue both from domestic and international streams. Not to mention access to a much higher level of commercial sponsorship. This makes it much easier to manage the debt whilst still being able to be competitive and spend in the transfer market.

Clubs outside of the major leagues, however, do not have this luxury and are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Either embrace austerity and find it impossible to compete or take a risk, spend heavily to attempt to achieve a run in the Champions League or Europa League (with no guarantee of success) and if it is unsuccessful, you are indebted to your eyeballs.

The ‘Big Five’ talent pool

The huge new aforementioned TV deals is now having a huge impact on the competitiveness of the big clubs outside of the Big Five. Take the example of Richarlison – the young 21 year-old Brazilian forward has impressed at Everton this season. Prior to joining Everton this summer, Richarlison had an impressive stint at fellow Premier League club Watford who paid in the summer of 2017 a transfer fee of GBP 11.2 million for the forward from Brazilian club Fluminense.

In the past, both Benfica and fierce rivals Porto would have been the “above all else” destination for any promising young player to emerge from Brazil. An easy opportunity to assimilate into European football, Benfica and Porto also frequently qualify for the Champions League. Impress for a few seasons at these clubs, play against Europe’s elite clubs, win a few league championships and after catching the eye of clubs in a Big Five league, move there when ready for the step-up at the age of 22 or so.

This still happens, however, it is much less frequent. Thanks solely to the huge new broadcasting incomes available to smaller teams in the elite European leagues, especially the Premier League, Benfica and Porto are increasingly finding themselves unable to compete with the likes of Watford, let alone Manchester United and Manchester City.

Furthermore, the elite clubs in Big Five leagues now want players proven at a fellow smaller club in these leagues. Two players signed by Manchester United recently from leagues outside of the Big Five – Fred from Shakhtar and Victor Lindelof from Benfica have disappointed in Manchester since signing. This could further impact future spending by elite clubs on talent in leagues outside of the Big Five. Long term this could be a drastic cut on a vital income stream to the likes of Porto and Benfica, historically reliant on selling their best talent to the big clubs for massive profits in the past.

Further emphasis alongside the examples above how clubs such as Benfica, Porto, CSKA, Shakhtar, Galatasaray and Fenerbache are being squeezed in the market is the rise of moneyed-up non-European leagues such as MLS, Chinese Super League and in the Middle East.

In 1996, Galatasaray signed Romanian legend Gheorghe Hagi aged only 31 years-old and still at the peak of his powers. Nowadays, the club would have a much lesser chance of signing a player who is not quite good enough for the elite teams anymore, but still capable of playing well for a lesser team.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic is the perfect example, upon leaving Manchester United aged 36, the Swede elected to join MLS side LA Galaxy instead of having a spell at one of the big teams in Turkey, Russia, Greece or Portugal.

Arguably the only example of a player like those described above at an elite club deciding to leave and try his luck at a big club in a league outside of the Big Five this summer was veteran 32 year-old Italian Claudio Marchisio who signed for Zenit St Petersburg from Juventus. It is worth noting however, that Zenit were helped via consistent injuries to Marchisio in his final two seasons at Juve which saw him slip down the pecking order in Turin. Without these injuries, he would likely still be playing at Juve now.

The luck of the draw

In this season’s Champions League group stage, only two teams from outside the Big Five are looking likely to qualify for the Last 16 – Porto, who lead Group D with 10 points from four games so far and Ajax who are 2nd in Group E with eight points from their four games.

However, the 18-19 editions of both teams are shadows of past sides that represented them. Both Porto and Ajax have been drawn in groups where there is only one participant from one of the Big Five leagues (Schalke in Porto’s group, Bayern Munich in Ajax’s group). All other groups have at least two teams in them from the dominant leagues. The likely progress of both Porto and Ajax is just as much due to a fortunate draw as it is ability on the pitch.

This analysis is not intended as an attack on these clubs, they have done well to find themselves in the positions they are in, however, being realistic, would either of them be in a position to qualify for the last 16 had they been drawn into another group? Unlikely, could anyone realistically see Porto or Ajax qualifying had they been drawn into Group B alongside two of Barcelona, Inter Milan or Tottenham? Or into Group C with two of Liverpool, Napoli and PSG? Their chances would have been very slim.

The Champions League first expanded to an eight groups of four teams and 32 team format in the 1999-00 season. The evidence of how the competition is now a closed shop for anyone outside of the Big Five is compelling.

For three seasons between 1999-00 and 2001-02, five teams from outside the Big Five made it through to the last 16. In sixteen completed editions of the tournament from the 2002-03 season to 2017-18 season, in only two other seasons have five teams from outside the Big Five managed to reach the last 16 (2011-12 and 2015-16).

Furthermore, any teams from outside the Big Five who do reach the last 16 are likely to go no further and will likely be on the end of a thrashing by one of the elite clubs. Case in point, Liverpool beating Porto 5-0 and Bayern thrashing Besiktas 8-1 on aggregate respectively in the last 16 of last season’s competition. Sadly, they are simply there to make up the numbers.

The Europa League’s closing door

Once proudly lauded unpredictable second tier UEFA Cup/Europa League is being dominated by the Big Five. In the eight seasons from 2002-03 onwards, seven different clubs (Porto, Valencia, CSKA Moscow, Sevilla, Zenit, Shakhtar and Atletico Madrid) from four different countries (Spain, Portugal, Russia and Ukraine) won the competition.

From 2011-12 to 2017-18, five different clubs (Porto, Atletico, Chelsea, Sevilla and Manchester United) from three different countries (Portugal, Spain and England) won the competition. It is also worth noting that of the last five clubs in this eight year cycle that won the competition, Chelsea, Sevilla and Atletico won the competition after finishing 3rd in their Champions League group and thus dropping into the Europa League.

One look at the Europa League this season so far and the presence of Chelsea, Arsenal, AC Milan, Lazio, RB Leipzig, Sevilla, Real Betis and Villarreal makes the chances of a winner of the competition from outside of the Big Five leagues unlikely.

Bear in mind, this is before the Champions League dropouts enter the Europa League knockout rounds.

Amongst the dropouts from the Champions League include, one of PSG, Napoli or Liverpool, one of either Inter Milan or Tottenham, Valencia, and either Hoffenheim or Lyon. Therefore, a team from outside the Big Five to win the competition would likely have to beat three or possibly even four of the above mentioned teams over five rounds. Is it likely?

Perhaps beating one or two is a possibility, but three or four is highly unlikely. There is the possibility of having a run to the latter stages, but it may well require a fortunate draw. Even then, they are going to have to defeat a club of the stature of Arsenal, Chelsea or Sevilla over two legs at some point. Two words – good luck.

Porto defeated Braga in the 2011 Europa League final and like the Champions League, they are the last team from outside of the Big Five European leagues to win the competition. Based on the evidence above, this record may also last a while.

FC Porto’s victories in the 2004 Champions League final and 2011 Europa League finals are increasingly looking like high-mark moments in European football. The last time a team from outside of Europe’s Big Five leagues can triumph in either competition.

A combination of huge discrepancy in broadcasting deals, an inability to compete for transfers and an unappealing choice between embracing austerity or piling up huge debt via risk has made both UEFA’s club competitions closed shops for clubs outside of European football’s Big Five leagues.

Author Details

Richard Pike

Wigan Athletic season ticket holder, avid lover of the English Football League, other European football and taking in football matches on long weekend breaks in European cities

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