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Jul 22, 2009

Porto find success as a stepping stone

Like nearly all Portuguese clubs, FC Porto have been struggling under the millstone of debt but, remarkably, the side who have won the league for the past four years have continued to develop despite a transfer policy that sees them sell their best players almost every season.

Since Jose Mourinho brought the UEFA Champions League title to Portugal in 2003-04, the club have raised an incredible €300m from a succession of top quality internationals who have sought to further their careers at some of Europe's top clubs.

The list reads like a Who's Who of top stars and includes Brazilian midfielder Anderson (sold to Manchester United for a fee in excess of €30m in 2007), Ricardo Carvalho, Paulo Ferriera and Jose Bosingwa (offloaded to Chelsea for a combined fee of nearly €100m - although not at the same time) and Inter Milan's €19m purchase of Ricardo Quaresma.

This season the trend has continued, as a club who have consistently made the knockout rounds of the Champions League in recent years decided to cash in on more of their stars. Lisandro Lopez headed to Lyon for €24m, with left-back Aly Cissokho joining him for €15m and Argentine midfielder Lucho Gonzalez also bolted out of the exit door to Marseille for €18m.

The club have also brought in some extra cash by offloading selling Brazilian midfielder Ibson to Spartak Moscow, Paulo Machado to Toulouse and Assuncao to Atletico Madrid, putting their income from transfers for the summer at over €60m - and that's before the reported €30m sale of defender Bruno Alves, who the club (for once) appear very keen to keep hold off.

So why are such a successful side made to rebuild their squad every year? Well, for two reasons. Firstly, the club are saddled with debt and need to raise money to continue to pay for the construction of their new stadium - at a cost of €100m since its inauguration in November 2003 (minus interest payments, of course) - and the wage bill they have amassed with the procurement of a large number of squad players.

Secondly, it is a philosophy that has brought the club great success (as well as money) and, while Porto president Pinto da Costa has received some criticism for his financial handling of the club, you cannot argue with the facts.

The Porto supremo, at the forefront of the club for over 25 years, has been a driving force in bringing the club through as title contenders in a league that was dominated by Sporting and Benfica pre-1984 and the Dragons have won 13 out of the last 19 Portuguese league titles. They have also landed numerous Portuguese Cups, Super Cups and a UEFA Cup in more than a decade of dominance; while they are one of the best supported clubs around with the average attendance at the Dragon Stadium approximately 38,000.

Da Costa has ensured that the club's transfer policy has built the foundations of a squad that is not over-reliant on any one player. Lisandro and Lucho were important, no doubt, but they are replaceable and the Porto board appear to have filled the gaps well.

Argentinean midfielder Diego Valeri has joined on loan from Lanus, while they have so far landed more South American talent in Fernando Belluschi from Olympiakos for a fee of €5m, Uruguayan defender Alvaro Pereira from Cluj for a fee of €4.5m and Brazilian defender Maicon from Cruzeiro.

The club thrive on picking up lesser known players for a small fee and then selling them on once they have made their mark. But there is an extra dimension to their scouting and it relies on the complicated way that some players' rights are owned by an agency, rather than a club.

Porto have found success in luring South American talent by buying up a percentage of their rights and then completing the deal years later. Lucho was signed from River Plate in 2005 with Porto sharing the ownership with Global Soccer Agencies after paying €4.6m to purchase half of the rights and spending €6.65m to seal the deal two years later. Such a deal sometimes allows a modest transfer fee to be paid (if any at all), but also gives the club a fall-back position if the player doesn't settle.

This summer, the club bought 60% of Radamel Falcao's transfer rights for €3.9m from River and will have high hopes for the 23-year-old Colombian forward, who is viewed as one of the world's top prospects after netting 45 goals in 110 games for River. It is something of a coup for them to have beaten off competition from a player who was once attracting the interest of Manchester United and Arsenal, but it is easy to see why he may have wanted to move.

Porto cannot offer the wages that other major European clubs can, but are an attractive prospect for South American players as they get Champions League football, regularly win silverware and, perhaps most importantly, provide a stepping stone for them to gain an EU passport. Such a move grants players the chance to move to other European clubs, without the problems of gaining work permits and visas - making them vastly more appealing to potential suitors further down the line.

While Porto continue to gain critics for their approach, it is hard to argue against what they are doing. A club with ambition, but not an overinflated sense of where they should be in European football, the Portuguese side will continue to make a profit on their star players, while they bring new ones through to replace them at bargain prices.

A model of how mid-ranging European clubs should be run, the Dragons might initially cringe at the prospect of another season of rebuilding but, if they continue to win trophies, then another summer of upheaval will quickly be forgotten.

•  Any questions? E-mail Jon Carter

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