Heavy defeats in Europe have prompted much soul-searching and begging for forgiveness,

By Pedro Pinto in Lisbon
The Latin phrase “mea culpa” (“my fault”) has become a common one in Portuguese football this season as managers and players have been falling over themselves to apologise to supporters following disastrous results in Europe.

Sporting were the latest club to say sorry to their fans following a 7-1 thrashing away to Bayern Munich in the second leg of the first-knockout stage of the Champions League. Manager Paulo Bento and captain Joao Moutinho both pleaded for forgiveness for a performance that was simply catastrophic. Both men promised it would not happen again.

However, the fact that the same individuals had pronounced the very same words after losing the first leg 5-0 in Lisbon just two weeks earlier left the credibility of Bento and his squad in tatters, and prompted Sporting followers to gather outside the club’s training ground and hurl insults at the players and coaching staff as they passed in their cars.

However, Sporting are not the only ones to have been humiliated in Europe this season.
Benfica, who failed to qualify for the Champions League, were trounced in Athens by Olympiakos in the group phase of the UEFA Cup. Quique Sanchez Flores’ men lost 5-1 and could have conceded even more had the Greek side’s forwards made more of the opportunities they created. There were apologies from coach and players after the game for the poor performance, but again it failed to inspire anyone. Benfica lost their
next UEFA Cup game at home to Metalist Kharkiv of Ukraine and were dumped out of the competition.

Last but not least, Porto also had to issue an apology after a 4-0 drubbing in London against Arsenal in their second Champions League group game. Fortunately for coach Jesualdo Ferreira, his side – unlike their domestic rivals – did put things right and ended up topping Group G, qualifying for the next stage and put up a wonderful performance in the quarter-final first leg against Manchester United.

Worrying sign
Porto may have reached the quarter-final stage of the Champions League, but the heavy defeats in Europe this season are a worrying sign for Portuguese football.

Accustomed to challenging the continent’s top clubs for major honours, it seems the gulf between the Portuguese Liga and other prestigious leagues is now widening. The chances of a club from Portugal winning a European competition in the next five years are looking increasingly slim. Why, you ask? Well, there are three main reasons.

Firstly, money. Last season, the television rights for Portugal’s top division were sold for a total of £44million. The bulk of that money went to Porto, Benfica and Sporting, with each profiting by between £7m and £8m. In contrast, the 20 English Premier League teams received over £900m for broadcasting rights, with Manchester United getting over £50m for the 2007-08 season. In Germany, Spain, France, Italy, Holland and Greece, teams also get more money than those in Portugal.

Secondly, there is the loss of home talent. With Portuguese clubs needing money to survive, their main source of income has become the selling of young players and this has seen talented starlets such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Nani, Manuel Fernandes, Ricardo Quaresma and Pepe leave for richer and greener pastures. If young players don’t mature in Portugal, their home clubs will rarely see the best of them in Europe‘s top competitions.

Thirdly, there’s the mediocre foreign imports. In order to increase revenue and turn a profit, Portuguese clubs rarely substitute their talented youngsters with players of the same value or quality, meaning they usually invest in South American players who have little or no experience in Europe and who struggle to shine.

There are some exceptions, mostly at Porto, where Lucho Gonzalez and Lisandro Lopez have shown their quality, but they are the exception that proves the rule. These days, all of Portugal’s top clubs are littered with average Argentinian, Uruguayan and Brazilian players who have failed to live up to expectations and whose limitations are exposed, especially when they play in Europe.

There is still hope for Portuguese clubs and the tide can still turn. However, if these trends continue, embarrassing results will become the norm and it will be a long time before Porto, Sporting or Benfica lift a major European trophy again.