One more season is drawing to a close in Portugal and one more title for FC Porto in the bag. This brings the tally to an impressive 19 in 30 years under the leadership of president Pinto da Costa. Since taking over, Pinto da Costa has taken FC Porto from being a regional dominating club with some national success to becoming the dominating club in the country and one of the most established features in Europe. To place this in perspective, under Pinto da Costa, FC Porto have won 19 league titles (in 25 total), 12 (20) Portuguese Cups and 17 (18) Portuguese Supercups. Also internationally, FC Porto won 2 Champions Cup/League, 2 UEFA Cup/Europa League, 1 European Supercup and 2 Intercontinental Cups. This is an impressive trophy haul for just 30 years, especially after having been built on the back of only regional support.
This reference to Pinto da Costa becomes all the more relevant whilst reflecting on the season. After having been absolutely dominating in 2010/12 under the guidance of André Villas-Boas, FC Porto started this season with Vítor Pereira (the previous assistant manager) as the new man in charge and, whilst Pinto da Costa proclaimed him to be the man behind the scenes during the previous season, there was a sense of expectation and possibly of anti-climax as the season kicked-off. More than that, the departure of Falcao to Atletico Madrid had deprived the club of one of the best strikers in world football and of the finishing outlet to the devastating attacking power of players like Hulk or James Rodriguez.
The season did not start badly for the champions. A defeat against Barcelona at the European Super Cup was not expected and the team showed a disciplined face, capable of asking questions of Barcelona’s passing game and only the natural difference in quality between both teams delivered the trophy to the catalans. In the internal front, FC Porto followed a long tradition and took again the Cândido de Oliveira SuperCup with a 2-1 victory against Vitória de Guimarães which betrayed some sluggishness in the passing and the movement of the players. Later on, rumours talked about some dressing room unrest, particularly after some uncharacteristically poor and low-intensity performances by João Moutinho, and spoke of a difficulty by Pereira of handling the squad.
The Secret Footballer wrote some time ago of the difficulties no. 2s tend to find when they are promoted, especially when they have to replace a very successful boss, as was the case of Villas-Boas. During the previous season Villas-Boas had shown a deft hand at managing some players, namely Guarín and Belluschi, two players who vied for the same vacancy in midfield, even if they presented different styles. Of course, a winning team is a happy team and a winning momentum can by itself take care of personal grievances, but team spirit is not built around it. In the absence of a true charismatic captain as was the case in the past at the club (João Pinto, Jorge Costa, Aloísio, Vítor Baía, Bruno Alves, etc.), Pereira had no support when handling some of the more difficult characters. The fact that Moutinho, having arrived only one season earlier from Sporting, a perennial rival, had been promoted to vice-captain.
The fact that Kleber was taking too long to show his obvious talent and that Walter was no replacement just highlighted the need to balance the squad somewhat, especially after Benfica had found their stride and taken the lead. At this point FC Porto simply offloaded Guarín and Belluschi on loan to Italy, bought Marco Janko from Twente to supply a reference point in attack; and added former club favourite Lucho Gonzalez who was itching to move away from Marseille. These changes were received with reluctance and big question marks, but proved inspiring. Moutinho became the absolute leader in midfield, Lucho brought quiet harmony to the changing room at the same time as he imposed the club’s winning mentality; and Hulk became free to roam more and do what he does best: rip defenses apart with power and trickery at high pace.
Of course, nothing of this would work if Benfica had not started to stutter. Jorge Jesus’ is an obviously talented and astute manager but it is also obvious he believes his own legend too much. As has been common with his teams from February, Benfica started to feel the weight of attacking four different fronts simultaneously with about the same players and it showed, in particular when FC Porto turned on the psychological pressure. Whatever can be made of Sir Alex Ferguson or Mourinho in terms of mind games, truth is that Pinto da Costa could give them all a masterclass in this respect. He simply placed the pressure on the willing shoulders of Jesus and Benfica’s president Vieira, shrugged off the exit from the Champions League as a hiccup and ignored the League Cup as a minor competition. He realised that this season was all about the league and focused his team on it. More important, he sold this idea to a legion of devout and faithful fans who have become used to accepting what “the Pope” (Pinto da Costa’s nickname) says as holy writ.
Even though these changes did not cause the team to start perform as under Villas-Boas, they became much more of a reliable machine, capable of winning matches through work and by letting their star players open up the more closed defences. Not the Ferrari of the previous team, FC Porto were in the second season like a reliable old VW Golf which does not break down and is capable of some unexpected accelerations when necessary. Despite some possibly questionable referreeing decisions going their way (this is a perennial problem in portuguese football, something to address in a different post), FC Porto showed sufficient resilience and invention to beat Benfica away and thus justify the title.
With each year, the question remains: how long will Pinto da Costa stay at the helm. After 30 years in which even arguably mediocre managers managed to shine, it is now obvious that Pinto da Costa is the real driving force behind FC Porto’s most successful period ever (especially in the past decade). It seems now clear that Vítor Pereira will stay. The only alternatives Pinto da Costa would consider would possibly be Villas-Boas or Jorge Jesus himself. However, as Bruno Prata from Público (portuguese newspaper, link in portuguese) mentioned, Jesus himself burned his bridges to the Dragão with his comment «Porto? Those who reach the top do not go back!» at the mention of managing FC Porto. Pereira will be given the cance of building a side more at his image, but his biggest challenge will come if players such as Moutinho, Hulk or Alvaro Pereira leave (for the traditional hefty sums that Pinto da Costa always manages to extract from buying clubs). Whereas Hulk may have a replacement in James Rodriguez and/or Iturbe (another “new Messi”) and Alvaro Pereira may be replaced with some advantages by the brazilian promise Alex Sandro, Moutinho’s combination of talent, intelligence, movement and industry will be a much more difficult hole to plug. How Pereira solves these problems will give the measure of his qualities in a season where similar failure in Europe will not be tolerated.
Pinto da Costa himself already proved himself. He now just counts the days until his statue is erected just outside the stadium and/or, the Dragão becomes the Pinto da Costa stadiu. He might be a polemic figure and the most divisive personality in portuguese football, but seeing what he has achieved in all these years and what he brought to FC Porto and the country, it would be an act of the most basic justice.