Thursday, April 5, 2012

Portugal is at the heart of Chelsea's rise and fall

The name of Filipe Oliveira is unlikely to inspire too many gushing anecdotes or colourful memories from Chelsea supporters.

But the attacking midfielder who made five appearances for the club under Claudio Ranieri and Jose Mourinho will demand mention in any documentation of the club’s history.

Oliveira was a trailblazer, treading a path from Portugal’s top division to Stamford Bridge for a generation of Portuguese-speaking players to follow.

The accent on Portuguese has gathered pace over the last decade to the point where it has become the second language in the dressing room and Chelsea is a footballing enclave of Portugal. 

The Londoners are in Lisbon preparing for the first leg of their Champions League quarter-final against Benfica in the knowledge that their playing staff is even more Portuguese than that of their hosts, who are not expected to have a single home-grown player in their squad.

Oliveria was the trendsetter (although strictly speaking the Brazilian Emerson Thome, who came to Chelsea from Portugal via Sheffield Wednesday at the end of the 1997-98 season, was the first of his kind) but Portugal became fashionable as a talent factory ripe for plucking under Mourinho, who brought Ricardo Carvalho and Paulo Ferreira with him when he thundered into west London from Porto in 2004 as well as Tiago Mendes from Benfica.

The Portuguese connection was not just limited to the playing staff. Mourinho recruited Andre Villas-Boas as opposition scout – he later returned as manager – and Baltemar Brito as his assistant manager.

It was a distinct cultural shift. The club’s heart, epitomised by John Terry and Frank Lampard, remained English but it danced increasingly to a Portuguese beat. With a few Samba moves thrown in for good measure.

The naturalised Portuguese Deco joined the talent drain from Portugal to SW6, as did Brazilian Luiz Felipe Scolari, manager of the national team that were runners-up, semi-finalists and quarter-finalists in Euro 2004, the 2006 World Cup and Euro 2008 respectively. Maniche and Ricardo Quaresma came briefly on loan.

Mourinho, Scolari and Villas-Boas have all departed but the strong Portuguese influence remains. The current first-team squad includes Jose Bosingwa, Ramires, David Luiz, Henrique Hilario and Raul Meireles (who came to Chelsea after one season at Liverpool).

It is mostly Portugal’s two marquee clubs, Porto and Benfica, who have been the beneficiaries of Roman Abramovich’s wealth, not only in terms of transfer fees for their players but compensation for their up-and-coming managers, too.

With the benefit of hindsight, some of the Russian’s roubles were well spent – the £20million for Carvalho, the money splashed out to hire and keep Mourinho. Ramires, too, has developed into the club’s most reliable midfielder and would generate a profit if he was sold tomorrow.

Of the other raids on Portugal’s top tier, Chelsea’s various talent-spotters, recruitment specialists and advisers might be advised to look away now. 

Tiago (£8m), Deco (£8m), Maniche and Quaresma all flopped, as did Villas-Boas (buy-out clause £12.55m at current exchange rates) and Scolari (£12.8m pay-off). Right-backs Ferreira (£13.2m) and Bosingwa (£16.2m) remain on the pay-roll but have never justified the fees or fanfares that greeted their arrivals from Porto. Hilario is a rainy-day solution that leaves most Chelsea supporters praying for dry conditions.

The jury is still out on whether Luiz can translate his technique and charisma into battle-hardened reliability while Meireles appears even more of a luxury in west London than he did on Merseyside.

For the hundreds of millions spent on transfer fees, salaries, buy-out clauses and pay-offs, an accountant would conclude that the big spenders have been left with a yawning net deficit. 

Despite Mourinho’s brilliance and influence, it would be re-writing history to say that Chelsea owe Portugal a debt of gratitude for their rise to the European summit.  Special thanks should be reserved for the state assets of the old Soviet Union, which transformed Abramovich from well-connected businessman to billionaire, and the two countries that lie either side of the channel. 

The territories of England (Terry, Lampard, Damien Duff and the two Coles, Ashley and Joe), and France (Didier Drogba, Claude Makelele, Petr Cech, Michael Essien) have been far more reliable production lines than Portugal. 

Given the reputation that Portugal has established for fusing Brazilian sorcery with European thinking, it is surprising that so few of Chelsea’s imports from a region famed for its technical excellence have been attacking players. They have mostly recruited defenders and midfield protectors.

Chelsea have yet to sign a senior striker from Portugal’s top tier and only Deco, Meireles and Quaresma would fit into the category of genuine creators, although none has delivered excellence or consistency in west London.

By contrast, Manchester United unearthed rough diamonds Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani from Sporting Lisbon and polished them into match-winning gems.

Chelsea would need a Hulk or a Radamel Falcao (who were both part of Villas-Boas’ triple trophy winners at Porto last year) to shine on the Premier League stage, or for Luiz to blossom into one of the planet's outstanding defenders, to effect a turn-around in what has been, starting with Oliveira 10 years ago, a surprisingly unsatisfactory use of the club’s resources.

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