When reports linked Chelsea owner Todd Boehly with a move for Portimonense, there could have been mixed feelings about the prospect of life as a Premier League feeder club. The reality is rather different among supporters of the side from the Algarve.
Up to seventh in the Portuguese top division, ostensibly these are the good times. Portimonense have never finished so high this century. But for all the sun, the sea, and the smiles of the tourists, this is a club whose disillusioned supporters ache for change.
Some complaints will be familiar to fans far beyond their shores. There is frustration that the big clubs cannot be challenged. But this is also a murkier tale with questions over the administration’s relationship with Porto. Why not be a feeder club for Chelsea when they are so far down the Portuguese food chain already?
“Anyone but this administration,” Rui Quinta tells Sky Sports.
Quinta’s story is typical in some respects. He became a Benfica member at the age of three. He had no choice. His family registered him. It was the done thing. In Portugal, everyone supports one of three clubs – Benfica, Porto or Sporting – even those that don’t.
At 14, he broke with that tradition.
“I told my parents, ‘No, never pay my membership for Benfica’.”
He was an Algarve boy. At 31, he still is. His dream is that one day he will see his beloved side in Europe. That has happened just once in the club’s history, in 1985, when Portimonense were knocked out in the first round of the UEFA Cup by Partizan Belgrade.
His devotion is rare.
“In Portugal it is not like the UK. Unfortunately, everyone supports the three big teams.”
They were the top three upon the conclusion of the first-ever league season in the country in 1935 and have shared all but two of the 88 Portuguese titles that have been won since.
To illustrate their ubiquity, the attendance for the most recent Portimonense game against Estoril was less than a third of the gate for the previous fixture when Porto were in town.
While that might not be especially unusual, given that more people want to go to the bigger games, the difference here is that many of the casual supporters who were swelling the gate were actively supporting Porto – even when they were seated in the home end.
“People sell their tickets for the big games. We realise because the people around us don’t know where the seats are. They are coming for the first time. It was very sad a few years ago when there were screams when Benfica scored. There were people in Benfica jerseys.
“The guys in front of me are Porto fans so they always have their phones out and are very excited when we play Porto, running up to the bench to see the players. People were even supporting the B teams of the big clubs when we were in the second division.”
Big clubs and small clubs. That is the nature of football, even if it is more pronounced in Portugal than elsewhere in Europe. The bigger concern for supporters of Portimonense is that those in charge are not just accepting of that – they are complicit.
Portimonense’s majority shareholder is Teo Fonseca. That is not his birth name. “It is like a performance, like Lady Gaga,” says Quinta. He is Constantin Teodoro Panagopoulos, the super-agent who found fame by taking Brazilian forward Hulk to Porto in 2008.
That deal was complicated. Though Hulk had been playing in Japan, a chunk of the fee was paid to Uruguayan club Rentistas, despite him never playing for them. With Fonseca around, Portimonense now find themselves part of that tangled web.
There have been over 30 transfers between Porto and Portimonense in the past eight seasons.
“Sometimes the Porto coach does not even seem to want the player,” adds Quinta. “We sold a player called Ewerton to Porto. A few weeks later he went on loan to Japan. Last year, we had Samuel Portugal, in my opinion, the best goalkeeper in Portugal. He is at Porto now as their third-choice goalkeeper.”
The closeness of the relationship has sparked scepticism among supporters of Sporting and Benfica, a source of frequent humour in Portugal. Twelve times they have met since Portimonense returned to the top division in 2017. Twelve times Porto have won.
Portimonense supporters trust their own players but sometimes the selection decisions do not make it easy. The notorious Theo Ryuki spent one season as a regular in 2015/16. “We missed promotion because he was a very bad player but he had to play.”
He is the son of majority shareholder Fonseca.
Only the appointment of legendary coach Vitor Oliveira changed that situation. “Everyone in Portugal loved him and because he had a lot of credit he did not have to play the boss’ son.” Oliveira duly delivered the 10th promotion of his managerial career in 2016.
Having died suddenly in 2020, his image is emblazoned on the walls outside the ground, a tribute to both his character and the way that he was able to briefly reignite supporters’ ambitions at Portimonense. With Oliveira gone, that enthusiasm has waned.
“That team was amazing. Even for the first division it would have been a good team. Everyone was excited and the stadium was full every week. But since then the better players have been sold every year and the team has become worse and worse.
“Even when we start the season well, we know that in January we will lose a lot of players. Last year, we were selling players until April because even though the European market was closed they could go to China, Japan or Brazil. We could not buy anyone.
“The administration has the attitude that we are not going to be relegated so sell everything. The team becomes worse and worse through the year. This January, because there are two teams who are worse than us this season, we will sell players, for sure.
“We are not competitive and we are out of the cup to a team from the third division. Every year there are less and less people in the stadium. Right now, the seats on my side are free. The guy who had three last year did not renew. People are very disappointed.”
All of which might be enough to make one wonder what the appeal might be for Chelsea. But the potential of Portimonense can be explained by its presence in the Portuguese league. This is a competition that is a proven producer of elite Premier League talent.
Manchester City signed Ruben Dias and Ederson from Benfica. Liverpool broke their transfer record to sign Darwin Nunez from the same club, having earlier brought in Luis Diaz from Porto. Bruno Fernandes’ move to Manchester United is Sporting’s record sale.
Todd Boehly on the multi-club model
“We have talked about having a multi-club model. I would love to continue to build out the footprint. There are different countries where there are advantages to having a club. Red Bull does a good job. Manchester City has a big network of clubs. Our goal is to ensure pathways for our young stars to get on to the Chelsea pitch while getting them real game time. To do that is through another club in a really competitive league in Europe.” – Todd Boehly, September 2022
If Chelsea could find a way to cut out the middle-man by placing quality young players in Portuguese competition, there is the chance to save significant money in transfers. With five Portuguese teams qualifying for European competition, the opportunity is there.
Among the small crowd against Estoril, that opportunity is not immediately obvious. This does not look like the elite game. It does not sound like it either. “The ultras stopped last year because of fights with the administration. Without them, it is very quiet.”
One stand is missing with no plans afoot to rebuild it. The pitch is impressive though – winner of the award for best in Portugal for each of the previous four seasons. There is pride here. As the banner proclaims, we are Algarve, we are Portimao, we are Portimonense.
Given that they are the only club from the Algarve currently playing in the top division, could Chelsea even help to create a new force in the south of the country? Quinta is sceptical about the catchment area being a factor. The big clubs got there first.
“Local players from Portimao are impossible. If a kid is good at 10 years old he will go to the big clubs. He does not even have to leave the Algarve because those clubs have training centres here. They stay here until the age of 14 and then they can go north.”
City Football Group – Men’s senior teams
Manchester City (England)
Melbourne City (Australia)
Yokohama F Merinos (Japan)
New York City (United States)
Montevideo City Torque (Uruguay)
Sichuan Jiuniu (China)
Mumbai City (India)
But finding the best young players from South America and helping them adjust to Europe at Portimonense, that could just work. Mexican and Chinese consortia have been exploring the idea. Rumours of interest from City Group excited fans too.
The worry for fans is whether the administration will walk away.
“I am hoping,” adds Quinta. “But it is not like other small clubs where the owners buy them and then sell them because they do not want to live there. Living in the Algarve is amazing. The administration lives here and they like it. They will want to be paid a lot of money.”
Whether Chelsea’s new ownership conclude that the investment makes sense remains to be seen. What is certain is that they have folk in the Algarve dreaming. “We hope that one day, even if it is for just one game, we will see Portimonense in Europe again.”