In 2008, Givanildo Vieira de Sousa was banging in the goals for Tokyo Verdy—a club in J. League Division 2 and the Brazilian’s third stop in Japan following a move from Vitoria three years earlier.
During the 2007 season, which he spent on loan from Kawasaki Frontale, the forward tallied 37 times in 42 matches and finished top-scorer in the second tier of Japanese football—a modest achievement, to be sure, but one that also brought him to the attention of one of the sport’s biggest, most sophisticated scouting networks.
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By the time Givanildo made a permanent switch to Tokyo, the then-21-year-old had been watched numerous times by curious scouts, cross-examined by critical judges of talent and finally courted by purposeful recruiters.
The following July he sealed his move to Porto, where fans of the Portuguese champions were introduced to a left-footer commonly known as “Hulk.”
As a piece of business, Porto’s four-year association with Hulk reveals the template by which the club continues to survive, and thrive. It’s also a very intentional strategy, the mastermind of which—Antero Henrique—is highly regarded throughout European football.
Raised in a working-class family in north-eastern Braganca (his father was a customs officer, his mother a school-teacher), Henrique, who is thought to have been a Benfica supporter in his youth, took a job with Porto’s fan magazine as an 18-year-old and quickly rose through the club’s administrative ranks.
By the time he had served as head of the Dragons’ media department he had won the favour of club president Pinto da Costa, who began grooming him for a role in the athletic department.
In 2005—just a year after the Jose Mourinho-led Champions League success—Henrique, 37, was appointed sporting director and tasked with replenishing the squad following the high-profile exits of European champions Deco, Paulo Ferreira, Ricardo Carvalho, Pedro Mendes, Nuno Valente and Maniche.
But the job came with a catch: He was to run a positive transfer balance each season.
For his first acquisition, Henrique turned to Argentina and Buenos Aires outfit Racing, from which he snapped up Lisandro Lopez for just over €2 million. The striker had topped the Argentine Apertura scoring charts and quickly became a centre-piece in a Porto side that went on to win four championships on the bounce.
In 2009 Henrique followed through on the second part of his arrangement with Pinto da Costa, selling Lopez to Lyon for €24 million. That same summer he went back to Argentina and signed River Plate forward Radamel Falcao for slightly more than €5 million.
Repeat a process enough and it becomes a pattern. If successful, that pattern becomes a model.
What Henrique has managed to do at Porto is install a model by which young talent is brought into the club, allowed to mature and then moved on at a profit. Of course, the incoming players require an upside worthy of initial investment, and it’s here that Henrique, now 46, truly shines.
Henrique, as he revealed to France Football back in 2012, employs a network of more than 250 scouts, deployed in some of the most obscure places in the football world. But they’re not on the lookout for just any players; their assignments are to discover suitable replacements for existing ones, such as Falcao for Lopez.
To help them, Henrique has developed a database that orders clusters of known and scouted players behind a particular position in the squad.
For example, in 2011 Porto brought Eliaquim Mangala to Estadio do Dragao for €6.5 million. At the time the former Standard Liege defender was expected to replace Bruno Alves, who had left the club for Zenit St. Petersburg the year before.
Earlier this month Mangala, himself, was sold to Manchester City for €40 million, and the player targeted as his replacement—Bruno Martins Indi—was acquired from Feyenoord for €7.7 million.
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Once Alves’ transfer fee is taken into consideration, that’s a positive balance of €47.8 million in a single position—a position that continues to be filled by a capable centre-back.
The repeated process in the position is a pattern. The pattern is the Porto model.
After parts of five seasons, three titles and 78 goals in all competitions, Hulk was transferred to Zenit St. Petersburg for €60 million in 2012. But the cupboard had already been re-stocked. Anticipating the Brazilian’s exit, Henrique had signed Jackson Martinez from Mexican side Jaguares in July, spending less than for €9 million on the forward.
And he’s currently preparing for Jackson’s departure, which could come before the end of August.
Already this summer Adrian Lopez has joined Porto from Atletico Madrid, and Barcelona’s Christian Tello recently moved to the club on loan. They, too, will remain with the Dragons only as long as Henrique deems it financially viable for them to do so.
The next Lopez, the next Falcao, the next Hulk, Jackson and Adrian is already playing his football somewhere, and chances are Porto have long since had him in their sights.
Jerrad Peters is a Winnipeg-based writer. Follow him on Twitter.