While Benfica prepare for their Europa League Round of 32 games against Arsenal, the club face a billion-dollar question: Can they continue to generate huge income through player sales while also ending a 59-year wait for European success?
The club's Benfica Campus boasts a remarkable record for producing top talent. In November 2020, the International Centre for Sports Studies (CIES) awarded them the highest score for an academy setup in Europe's top 31 leagues, taking into account the number of players trained, their ages and the sporting level they reached. Ajax were second, Barcelona third.
The list of stars produced at their 19-hectare site in Quinta da Trindade, a half-hour drive across the River Tagus from Lisbon's city centre, over the years is genuinely staggering. Manchester City are home to four graduates: Ruben Dias, Bernardo Silva, Ederson and Joao Cancelo. Victor Lindelof is now at Manchester United, Nelson Semedo plays for Wolverhampton Wanderers, Goncalo Guedes at Valencia, Andre Gomes at Everton.
Data from website Transfermarkt suggests Benfica are the only club to generate more than a billion pounds in sales since 2009, a staggering figure including the fourth-highest transfer fee of all time: Joao Felix's £114 million move to Atletico Madrid in July 2019. To compensate for the year-over-year losses, Benfica raided Brazil for three summer signings -- right-back Gilberto, midfielder Pedrinho and forward Everton -- who could eventually be the next players sold on to bigger clubs, but the emphasis very much remains on youth development.
Benfica remain a powerhouse of Portuguese football, the most recent of their 37 league titles coming just two years ago, but on the international stage they've failed to add to back-to-back European Cup successes of the early 1960s. The quest to end that drought resumes this week as Benfica face Arsenal in the first leg of their last-32 Europa League tie.
It is, inevitably, also an opportunity to showcase their latest batch of talent to a bigger audience, with top clubs always swarming the club's academy for the next big thing. Reconciling the desires for sporting and financial success is never easy, but in an exclusive interview with ESPN, Director General of the Benfica Campus, Pedro Mil-Homens, explains why Dias's story is an example of the academy's ideal outcome. Dias, 23, was the last big name to leave Benfica, joining City in a £65m deal last summer, ending more than a decade at the Benfica Campus.
"We have a mission in our academy and that is to produce players for the highest competitive level, if possible able to play for our first team," said Mil-Homens. "We belong to a country where we produce players, we sell players. We are not in a country with an economy that can retain the best ones for many years because the budget numbers, the TV rights, count for a lot. The big five leagues -- England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain -- have tremendous power in terms of buying young players. In our case, the big clubs approach when our players reach the first team and we have to live with that. Such is life.
"Ruben is a very good example. If we could reproduce the pathway of Ruben Dias, it would be very satisfying. He came with us for 11 years. He reached the first team. He played more than 100 matches for the first team. He gave us a football return, a performance return and then he gave us also a return on the investment in financial terms.
"Ruben is a good example of our ambition: We were all satisfied. Him, ourselves, the academy, the manager, the club, the president. Of course, it doesn't happen all the time, otherwise it would be a very easy task and it really is not."
Benfica are better at it than most. Mil-Homens, 62, has been with Benfica since 2017 having previously worked at Sporting Lisbon and, among a host of other advisory and educational roles, as a consultant for Portugal's Olympic Committee.
The Benfica Campus dates back to its opening by Eusebio in 2006, boasting nine pitches including a stadium for 2,721 spectators, an 86-bed hotel and 28 dressing rooms, with around 400 players on site ranging from under-14s to Benfica B, a professional team playing in Liga Portugal 2. There are innovative measures, such as the 360S simulator, a device that took a year to install. Featuring four walls built on an iron structure occupying a total area of 253 square metres, the simulator uses LED lights designed to improve a player's decision-making and accuracy.
Yet Mil-Homens insists there is no secret to their success.
"It is very important that you have a long-term view from the board of your club," he explained. "You need to look ahead and understand to develop a youth football project, you have to be patient. Nothing less than 10 years. If we recruit today a boy who is six or seven, nobody can say, 'This one will be in the Premier League and that one will not.' It is just guessing.
"The first guideline that you cannot fail on is player recruitment. It is crucial. The raw material is essential for any process. They are human beings, of course, but this is an industry. In any industry, you need the best raw material for the best end product. This is according to the player profile you wish to have.
"Player recruitment is the central aspect. Besides that, the player development -- the transformation of the raw material -- has to be well-defined and with a strong plan for the long term. It is the programme of the club.
"The third very important aspect is the player management. At the age of 16, the players approach the transition to professional football, and this is where you should have a different pathway for different players. In Portugal, we are allowed to have a B-team in our second division. It is a professional division and a very useful pathway for our best under-19 and under-20 players because they are exposed to very competitive football. But we also need to decide something different if a player is not prepared for that. We might need to put him on loan, or keep him with us in the under-23s. We should have a very well-structured player-management strategy for this final part of the 10-year strategy."
Some of this may sound overtly clinical, but the warmth Mil-Homens and his team operate with is proven by the number of graduates who return to reminisce and give back. Cancelo and Silva are among several players to have visited their old coaches and given talks to the current students. Dias was the last to return before the pandemic restricted international travel, and Felix is expected to make the trip later this year, assuming conditions allow. His brother, Hugo, is still in the club's under-19s group.
The financial impact of COVID-19 could compress transfer fees and heighten the importance of top clubs producing their own talent, but of more immediate concern to Mil-Homens is the toll the pandemic is taking on Benfica's youngsters. Sessions were suspended in March with players sent home and although they were able to resume in September, the country is now in lockdown with an end date unknown.
A report produced by the associations of the main sports -- football, volleyball and basketball among them -- suggested a drop-off in new registrations of youngsters, particularly in areas where families had to make a financial payment for attendance. That has not happened at Benfica (where no fees are charged), but sessions are now conducted over Zoom with players asked to report their physical activity via an app on their phones. They are also given video clips of matches to analyse, more for the social interaction than any meaningful learning.
"What we do now is just some entertainment, to be completely honest," Mil-Homens said. "If it was an individual sport, we could load more physical work, but in football we need to play. We need the ball. We need to have at least two against two, three against three. One against the screen of the monitor is not fair.
"We have for the first time now some wake-up calls of some mental and psychological fatigue. When I have meetings with the coaches and they say, 'This message from the player, they are asking all the time when can I come back, it is very boring just to do this in front of the PC, just having permission to go for a run around the corner, no football activity.'"
When the youngsters can return, a surprise will be waiting for them.
"We will open a gallery of former players on the corridor of the changing rooms," added Mil-Homens. "They will see pictures of graduates who they all know with a short curriculum: when they arrived at the club, their first game for the first team, where they are now. And then a photo with no face, asking, 'Who will be the next one?'"
That question remains essential to Benfica's future.