And in one day Portugal loses two of its greatest talents. We’re left speechless. Zenit Saint Petersburg’s millions are venom, seductive and simply unbeatable. FC Porto has lost their warrior, the equivalent of Riquelme’s influence at Boca Juniors or what Thierry Henry once meant to Arsenal. Benfica may not have lost their emperor, but Lisbon’s prince, arguably the most ‘virtuouso’ midfielder who’s worn the red jersey since Rui Costa’s golden days. In bolder words, Hulk and Witsel are colossal losses.
The business model of Benfica and Porto is elementary but consistently successful, buying players at a low price to sell them for lucrative profits, as seen with Di Maria or Coentrao at Benfica, Pepe or Falcao at FC Porto. But those names were sold to bigger clubs, the players went on to accomplish greater achievements, hence the transfers were inevitable. Whereas selling Witsel and Hulk to Russia is a different case and unnecessary.
Historically, footballers leave Portugal for a greater challenge, to demonstrate their potential on a more aspiring stage where they can transform into a world renowned player and hopefully bathe in European glory. So could the Russian Premier League be considered greater than the Primeira Liga? It simply can’t and that would be an argument corrupted with flaws.
Both players travelled different routes to complete their journey to Russia. Hulk is a special case, having joined FC Porto from Japan in a deal valued at €5.5m for 50% of his rights. He was a 'nobody’ on the international or Brazilian spectrum, aged 22 and the club paid a fortune; but more alarming was the contract protecting him with a £100m release fee. Historic.
FC Porto knew what they were doing and clearly scouted a potential in Hulk that nobody else probably saw. Their reputation of developing players into stars (who are then shipped off for millions) is unquestionable, and this was the case again. Although the time period for this transaction is normally 2 to 3 years, Hulk spent 4 seasons at FC Porto, which is not normal for their business. However, the interest never stopped intensifying and many times the club battled to keep hold of him, but the forward never forced an exit.
During his time at the club, Hulk lifted 3 league titles and the Europa League in 2011 under Andre Vilas-Boas during his dream debut season where they conquered a historic quadruple. Despite accumulating a wealthy selection of collective and individual accolades, Hulk’s main characteristic was his explosive presence and decisiveness which made him a match winner; playing a total of 169 matches, scoring 79 times and completing 55 assists. An outstanding figure where his performances naturally made him a frequent feature for Brazil.
FC Porto became a winning machine with the physical Hulk in their attacking front and he was their super hero which is implied through his nickname. Even when the likes of Lisandro Lopez, Lucho or Falcao left; the Brazilian 'Beast’ remained carrying the team forwards and became a city icon. He will always be one.
In the Portuguese capital, a Belgian promising midfielder arrived last summer. Every scout and Football Manager addict had heard of him and the €10m transfer fee clearly represented his talent and huge expectation Benfica placed in him. Axel Witsel certainly did not disappoint; he was the class, vision and elegance Benfica had been lacking for years. He was the perfect player and the fans adored him. Witsel was a wizard and it’s still a surprise how a club like Arsenal, Manchester United or Real Madrid did not sign him. They really should have, seriously.
It’s rare to find a midfielder of Witsel’s dimension and humbleness, he was a focused hard worker and soldier; the same etiquette was demonstrated by Hulk throughout his tenure. But the inevitable problem in Portugal is holding onto the club’s main assets, it is simply unfeasible and the solution is applying a form of protectionism; signing them with an elevated release fee clauses. Which seems to increase each year, scaring away interest from European sharks, well most of them.
But Benfica knows that a club like Zenit possesses virtually unlimited funds and aware that they’re willing to push the boundaries. This means that they’ll smash a player’s clause, leaving the club with no alternative but to accept the sale. Then again, it’s not like they don’t want to talk business when these figures are on the table. What would Mr. Platini say to this?
From one perspective, the Russian millions are beneficial for the clubs, as they can comfortably be re-invested into finding a replacement and more importantly, paying off the remaining debt that is still owed for the construction of the Euro 2004 stadiums. The money is brilliant, which is why nobody strongly opposes or complains. That’s the bitter truth.
However, are these players making the right career decision? Financially yes, but from a playing angle, the answer is unclear. It’s almost a mystery to understand what they’ll achieve in Russia and how their game will improve there. It may be audacious to question the popularity and support the Russian Premier League receives, but the demand to play there is surely low and the international coverage it receives is minimal. Plus, the arrival of Witsel or Hulk won’t change this.
Then again, they haven’t necessarily left Portugal to play in a 'better’ league or for a 'bigger’ club. Unlike Javi Garcia, who Benfica recently sold to Manchester City, a move which he describes as a “once in a lifetime opportunity.” It seems like anybody can transfer to Russia, for example, Danny is worth €30m over there!
In Portugal we don’t panic when a big names leaves; one door opens and another closes. The departures of Hulk and Witsel invite other payers to rise to the challenge or allows the manager to change formation. Whatever the outcome is, it won’t be long until their heir will be chased by the rest of Europe.
We’re used to it and as long as you pay, we don’t care. Obrigado Rússia!
This article is by Portuguese football expert Dominic Vieira, who’s a managing editor at AFR. Comments below please.