In the men’s game, Portugal boast one of the best players in the world (Cristiano Ronaldo), one of the most influential coaches (Jose Mourinho), and one of the most notable agents (Jorge Mendes). But the women’s side of things is still playing catch-up as it starts its journey to full maturity.
The women’s domestic league (now named the Campeonato Nacional Feminino) has been around since 1985, but with Boavista (11) and 1º de Dezembro (12) dominating things in the early years, traditional powerhouses Benfica and Sporting CP only became a force seven years ago. Sporting reactivated their women’s team in 2016-17 after a 21-year absence and immediately won the title and cup, while Benfica only created a team in late 2017 and have now picked up the last three titles in a row. The other major side in the country, FC Porto, does not yet have a women’s team.
Now, with an appetite for women’s football growing around the world, Portugal has, at long last, begun to make a name for itself on the biggest stages. From Benfica’s continued presence in the UEFA Women’s Champions League group stages, to the national team’s debut at Euro 2017 and then 2023 World Cup, it’s clear that the Portuguese game is on the rise.
So what can the women’s game learn from the success of the men? And how can the men’s game continue to grow while also generating huge sums from moving its best players on. Former scout and CEO Tor-Kristian Karlsen and women’s football expert Sophie Lawson assess what makes Portugal so special.
Karlsen: The growth of the Portuguese game can certainly be seen in healthily developing attendance numbers. Last season the “Big Three” — Benfica, FC Porto and Sporting (they account for roughly 70% of the total attendance figures) — recorded a best-ever aggregate average attendance of 46,591 spectators per home match, compared with 45,047 in the last “pre-pandemic” season (2018-19) and 33,053 a decade ago (2012-13.) Another illustration of the growing interest in the Portuguese game is that Benfica have sold out their season-ticket allocation (45,000, which is 70% of the capacity of their Estadio da Luz) for the past two seasons.
While the Liga Portugal still lags far behind more populous nations such as Serie A (€997m) and Ligue 1 (€582m) when it comes to domestic media rights, the current deal runs until 2027 and came in at €192m for this season.
Yet this discrepancy against European competitors explains why Portuguese clubs have to look beyond the sale of broadcasting and media rights to stay competitive in Europe. And since revenue generated from ticket sales, merchandise, media rights or sponsorship deals in a country made up of 10 million people can only take you so far, one doesn’t have to look too deeply at a club’s balance sheets to understand where they have found a competitive advantage: Over the past decade the five biggest Portuguese clubs (Benfica, FC Porto, Sporting CP, plus Braga and Vitoria Guimaraes) made a net profit on transfers amounting to nearly €1.8 billion.
Lawson: The women’s league is now broadcast domestically on the Federação Portuguesa de Futebol’s own channel and better involvement from the FA has been key to pushing for better conditions for players, although poor payment structures and trivial prize money remains a stumbling block. Fan support is growing and Benfica vs. Sporting set a new record attendance of 27,221 for a women’s football match in Portugal in March 2023.
Three-time champions Benfica are leading the way and have just, for the first time in their history, reached the hallowed ground of the UEFA Women’s Champions League quarterfinals. Before this season, they had only managed to get beyond the second round of qualifiers in Europe, something only achieved once before [Atlético Ouriense in the 2014-15 season, when they were promptly beaten 9-0 over the two legs of their round-of-32 tie against Fortuna Hjørring] by a Portuguese team.
— UEFA Women’s Champions League (@UWCL) February 2, 2024
Though they keep being grouped against former winners (Lyon; Barcelona twice) — including this season as they were beaten 5-0 in the opening game by Barca — the Portuguese champions have shown flashes of what they’re capable of and have continued to learn when they are tested against the best. Indeed, the development over the course of this Champions League season was clear, from that first group-stage loss to the flourish of ending it with a breathless 4-4 draw against the current holders.
Karlsen: Breaking their international trophy duck at Euro 2016 was key for the men, particularly after the disappointment of losing to underdogs Greece in the final of 2004 on home soil. But qualification for major tournaments is pretty much a given now with the quality of players they have to call on, such as Bernardo Silva, Rúben Dias, João Cancelo and, still going strong as the men’s all-time leading international scorer with 128 goals, the 38-year-old Ronaldo. Portugal have not missed a major competition since the 1998 World Cup and also picked up the UEFA Nations League trophy in 2019.
Lawson: It’s not been so easy for the women. After years spent as one of the worst in Europe since their formation in 1981, all three of the country’s recent appearances at the major tournaments were earned through the playoffs. They needed extra time against Romania to qualify for their first ever major tournament at Euro 2017 and were only granted a place at Euro 2022 as a lucky loser after failing to best Russia in the playoffs.
To reach their first ever World Cup in 2023, Portugal had to play 13 qualifying games (more than any other team) before they made it through the Intercontinental playoff: beating Cameroon with 94th-minute penalty. Incredibly, when they got to the tournament in Australia & New Zealand, were less than a post’s width from knocking out then-champions United States in a thrilling 0-0 group-stage draw that saw them narrowly finish third behind the U.S and Netherlands.
Portugal’s recent history has been about growth (they have climbed to 19th in the FIFA world rankings), but there are still hurdles yet to be cleared. “These kinds of tournaments, it depends on the draws, on the timing, but I think the quality is there: they have the quality and most of all, I think they now have the belief,” Sporting CP manager Mariana Cabral tells ESPN. “Before it was very normal for Portugal to get kicked around by the big teams, the Americans, the English, whatever, but now they know that they can compete. I think Portuguese players now have that kind of confidence and that’s important for the future.”
A similar path to youth development
Karlsen: Work on technical details such as developing a precise first touch — perhaps the most indispensable skill for a top-level footballer — assuming the right body position to receive a pass, carrying the ball at speed and being less dependent on the natural foot are fundamental components to developing the style of play we see in Portugal’s top men’s clubs. Such an approach tends to be less prevalent in countries which place greater emphasis on physicality.
Freedom of expression is also a concept which Portuguese coaches hold dear. Rather than putting kids into a set system from an early age, they tend to encourage players to solve situations themselves, finding the right solutions as the game unfolds. The result of this meticulous, competence-driven coaching is the development of highly skillful, intelligent footballers who can ply their trade successfully anywhere.
Lawson: Benfica assistant coach André Vale tells ESPN that parity in how they approach women’s and men’s football is key to the clubs’ aggressive style, which is intended to be pleasing on the eye and leave the opposition on the back foot.
“What we try to do is to teach the players the different moments of the game,” he says. “So that they themselves can look and read what’s happening in the game and decide [how to react] in regard to that. Of course, this takes longer.”
Two of the main teams trying to unseat Benfica at the top of the tree in the women’s game, Sporting CP and Braga, follow a similar ideal. With graduates like Luis Figo, Ronaldo, Ricardo Quaresma and Rui Patrício, Sporting’s academy is historically one of the most influential in Portuguese men’s football and it plays a key role in how the women’s side operates too.
“This club has a very clear path, not just in football, but in futsal, handball and other sports as well,” Cabral explains to ESPN. “A lot of players have been grown here. The goal here is doing the same with the women’s team because, first of all, the young players are very good, very talented, but they have been lacking in the last few decades.”
Indeed, many of the names in Sporting’s squad, who are familiar to fans of the national team, didn’t come through the club but were signed down the line. But as the setup has improved and women’s football in Portugal has grown in stature, Sporting’s academy has helped nurture players who have gone on to represent their country at senior level: from Joana Martins and Alícia Correia to highly rated midfielder Andreia Jacinto, who is currently at Real Sociedad.
Similarly, Braga (who won the league for their first and only time in 2018-19) have worked hard behind the scenes to a build youth setup with pathways allowing for the promotion of youngsters through the age levels.
Diversity and why Brazilians thrive
Karlsen: Not only is Portugal a football-obsessed country, but there’s a clear consensus of how the game should be played. As a result of its historic ties to South America, Portugal is arguably the European country that has been most inspired by Brazil, with development of technical ability adapted to a collective thought being imprinted from an early age.
Portugal can also offer a fairly smooth segue to Europe for oversees teenagers. Brazilians — who count more than 100 in the two top men’s divisions — logically settled immediately due to the linguistic and cultural similarities. Additionally, with Portuguese being generally understood and easily picked up by Spanish speakers, and English widely spoken and practiced to a high level by coaches, adaptation tends to run smoother in Portugal than in many other European countries.
Lawson: When ESPN asked Vale about the formation of Benfica’s squad — which started out life in the second tier in 2017 with eight Brazilians — the coach was mindful to talk about the players being the right fit for the project, as he said: “We love players. We don’t look into the nationalities; we look at their feet and their brains.”
Indeed, the diverse mix of players amongst Benfica’s ranks has helped push the squad on further. “The fact is that this squad now is very competitive” he added. “It has players from different cultural backgrounds, which personally I believe that enriches not only the team because you have differences, cultural differences, but it also connects more to the supporters because supporters connect to cultures.”
Karlsen: Indeed, while youth development is key, foreign arrivals also play a huge part. The top-tier in the men’s game has 59.8% of their players coming from abroad and the traditional elite teams are well aware that they are a steppingstone to other leagues. Outstanding work at academy level paired with smart scouting — particularly in South America — goes a long way to explain why clubs such as Benfica, FC Porto and Sporting CP manage to turn huge profits from their transfer operations.
Lawson: Much like its male counterpart, the women’s league in Portugal has seen an influx of players from around the globe and plays home to those not only from the more-traditional footballing nations like Germany, Spain, Australia and, of course, Brazil, but from far-flung countries like Vietnam, Panama, Puerto Rico and former Portuguese colony Cape Verde.
Although neither Benfica nor Sporting’s women’s teams are poised to repeat the transfer success of the men’s teams just yet — with the gap from women’s football to the men’s game still to be bridged even in the strongest markets — the Portuguese league can offer players from around the world a different experience.
“It’s more of a steppingstone to somewhere else because we do have good conditions and I think here players can learn a lot about the game,” Cabral says. “We see that with the players we’ve had, like Americans and Canadians, they have a very different culture of the game when they’re growing: it’s very physical, it’s very technical, maybe not so much tactical. They give us stuff that we don’t have and it’s great, and we give them some stuff that they don’t have as well. So, everyone grows.”
The path forward
Karlsen: While Liga Portugal has evidently enjoyed a fine upturn in popularity as well as affluency, the realistic outlook is likely to be a modest growth. With three teams enjoying massive supremacy — only five clubs have won the Portuguese league since its inaugural 1934-35 season (Belenenses and Boavista in addition to the “Big Three”) — it’s hardly competitive enough to captivate an international audience beyond the (predominantly Benfica supporting) Portuguese diaspora abroad.
Though foreign investors have taken control (or at least partly) at credible middling clubs such at Vitoria Guimaraes (the same owners as Aston Villa), Sporting Braga (QSI / PSG) and Famalicao, their interest generally revolves around creating affiliates to bigger clubs abroad or to take part in the value generated by player transactions. Which in turn means that they represent a little long-term threat to unbalance the silverware stronghold kept by Benfica, FC Porto and Sporting.
Rather than aiming for parity with the bigger leagues, Liga Portugal’s way forward is sticking to the tried and tested. Not only have the Portuguese proved over the past 30 years that they’re consistently in the elite of education of both players and coaches, both of which contribute to keeping the reputation of Portuguese football craftmanship in high regard. And unless the transfer market faces new restrictive measures, there’s no reason why Liga Portugal won’t carry on lucratively exporting players for years to come (which, as previously pointed out, has become a fundamental part of the clubs’ business models).
Furthermore, with first-class academy work and excellent scouting, clubs such as Benfica, FC Porto and Sporting should also keep delivering fine results in Europe. With a modest population and the size of the general economy, that’s already makes for a country punching well above its weight in football terms.
Lawson: The women’s game in Portugal has come on leaps and bounds, but there is still work to be done. Before the last decade, players had few opportunities, and many hung up their boots in their teens — a familiar drop-off felt in women’s football around the globe for a number of reasons — which created an age gap between those who stayed and those who are breaking through now.
Sporting boss Cabral, a former player and journalist who has been at the club since 2016, first with the youth teams before her promotion to the A squad in 2021, has not just seen the changes happen but has helped push the envelope at her club.
“First [you are] trying to grow this base,” she says. “Trying to grow to have more players playing, more talented players going through our teams and then giving them professional conditions. Even stuff like starting to go to the gym. It’s like you’re a reporter and nobody gives you a computer. Or, if someone gave you a typewriter today, it would be difficult. That’s what we do. In women’s football, sometimes you give the players typewriters and say ‘yeah, let’s try our best.'”
Yet the standards which are considered basic in men’s football are still luxuries across most of the women’s game.
“Sometimes we play in fields that are absolutely appalling or we have an annual schedule that’s very weird for clubs because it’s focused on the national team, not on the clubs, because our league isn’t professional yet,” she adds. “Half of the league has professional teams, but the other teams aren’t professional, so it still takes a while to grow. But we want to grow everything. We don’t want to grow just ourselves because that wouldn’t be good. We need everyone to grow.
“[We now have] access to gym, to the medical departments… This is the first year that we have a nutritionist with our team, for example. We’ve been training now more on natural grass and it makes a difference. All of this kind of stuff is important. We have [appointed] this year, a director of women’s football — before it was a director that we shared with the youth teams. So that’s important for us. That’s a sign of growth.”