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Jan 14, 2009

Europe eyes Portuguese production line

When Cristiano Ronaldo first arrived at Manchester United in 2003, you could have been forgiven for thinking that a Portuguese player would not cut it in the Premier League. The precedents of Helder Postiga, Hugo Viana and Abel Xavier had not been great, but after taking time to settle, the newly crowned FIFA World Player of the Year has changed the perception of Portuguese players across Europe.

Such has been the winger's impact that other clubs are looking to a Portuguese production line that has a rich history of success, for inspiration.

The Liga has struggled to hold onto it's top names in recent years, with Sporting's Brazilian-born striker Liedson the only star not to have tried his luck with another European side; and it points to a problem within the foundations of a league that has become more famous for who it has sold, than who it has in it.

Financial pressures have certainly played their part in limiting the ability of clubs to buy in big names, with many of Portugal's top stars seeking the high wages and prestige that comes from playing elsewhere in Europe. Match attendances are generally low, while the TV money on offer is a pittance compared to that of the English Premier League and there is a very real threat of bankruptcy for many of the smaller sides.

Even the established clubs have felt the pinch of the economic crisis and Vitor Oliveira, general director of first-division team Leixoes, told Bloomberg that Portuguese clubs "are cutting wages as ticket sales and sponsorship decline". To highlight the issue, one of the most popular clubs in the league, 2004 European Champions FC Porto, announced that ticket sales had fallen by 11.3% last year.

Therefore, in order to ensure that they can continue to develop, clubs have focused on youth - and although it springs from necessity rather than desire, they have found a high degree of success in selling on their young players.

Sporting Lisbon were forced to cash in on Ronaldo in 2003, making a profit of £12.24 million, having snapped him up from Madeiran club Nacional for almost nothing at the age of only 11. But the danger is that none of Portugal's rising stars will continue their trade in their homeland.

The Lisbon club's renowned academy has produced the likes of Luis Figo, Simao Sabrosa, Ricardo Quaresma, Hugo Viana, Luis Boa Morte, Nani and, of course, can take the credit for the development of Ronaldo, but out of the seven, only Figo made more than 100 appearances for the club.

Most recently they have brought through the likes of Joao Moutinho and Miguel Veloso, yet already the club are under tremendous pressure to sell. Rejecting a bid of around £12 million from Everton for midfielder Moutinho in the summer, the future of the versatile Veloso has also been under the spotlight with a Sporting spokesman forced to issue a statement claiming the 22-year-old would be staying at the Estadio Jose Alvalade this season.

The reality is that despite the excellent academy facilities in the country, when a large offer comes in, clubs are not able to refuse it for long. Arsenal, Fiorentina, Everton and Tottenham Hotspur are just a few of the interested parties in the highly-rated pair and any bid north of £15 million each appears enough to secure their signatures.

The precedents have been set in recent years with arguably the most talented player in the league at the time, Porto winger Quaresma, sold in the summer for €18.6 million to Inter Milan.

Miguel made the move to Valencia for €7.5 million in 2005 having begun his career with Estrela Amadora, while Benfica youth product Maniche has accumulated over €20 million in transfer fees in his European adventures.

While the Portuguese league has a history of selling its homegrown talent for big bucks, it also benefits from a steady stream of talent from outside of the EU, keen to secure themselves a European passport with the eventual aim of winning their big move to one of the top clubs on the continent.

Naturalised Portuguese defender Pepe (picked up by C.S. Marítimo at an early age from Corinthians' youth team) brought in €30 million for FC Porto when he was transferred to Real Madrid in 2007, while Brazilian midfielder Anderson also netted them £18 million when he was signed by Manchester United after joining from Gremio.

There are a host of other South Americans on show, including 22-year-old Brazilian striker 'Hulk' and impressive Argentine Lisandro Lopez. Nani, from Cape Verde Islands, and Jose Bosingwa, from Congo, also advanced their careers through the Liga; while there are others putting themselves in the shop window after spending time in the Liga, including Porto skipper Lucho Gonzalez and Benfica's Brazilian defender Luisão.

A player who could ultimately have a big impact on the English game in the near future, however, is Argentine winger Angel Di Maria. Benfica snapped him up from Rosário Central in July 2007 for just over £5 million and the tricky midfielder has attracted a lot of attention with his displays for the title contenders.

Now worth in excess of £15 million, Chelsea are reported to be interested in signing the 20-year-old to bolster the left side of their midfield. Luiz Felipe Scolari, a former manager of Portugal, will be fully aware of the Argentine's talent having watched him in the league last year and the club are confident that their links with his agent, Jorge Mendes, will aid their pursuit of the player.

Without a left-footed left winger, Chelsea could certainly use Di Maria's craft and he has become one of Europe's most sought-after talents after helping Argentina to win the Under-20 World Cup in 2007, and the Olympics in Beijing last year.

The London club has a history of picking up Portuguese talent in the past, thanks largely to their appointment of manager Jose Mourinho, and currently have five Portugal stars on their books: Bosingwa, Deco, Paulo Ferriera, Hilario and Ricardo Carvalho. But while the Premier League remains the most prestigious destination for the country's top players, there has been a more worrying exodus to less glamourous locations outside of Portugal.

Notably, the Cypriot league contains 40 Portuguese players, while the Romanian division holds 39. These 'middle-ranking' players are given the chance to secure their financial futures by plying their trade in Central Europe and their decision to swap their homeland for foreign shores is indicative of a growing indifference towards a cash strapped domestic league.

Portugal's national players' union now lists 313 expatriate Portuguese players across all European leagues, as well as several as far away as Iran, New Zealand and Kuwait and it does not bode well for the future that they would rather play there than in the Liga.

While the experience of playing abroad may benefit a few, there is an increasing concern that a country capable of nurturing the talent of the likes of Ronaldo may miss out on the benefits of their youth policy on their own soil and ultmately become nothing more than a fertile recruiting ground for Europe's elite.

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