The Portuguese export market is enjoying something of a boom. The country's most desirable footballers are grabbing the headlines as Europe's leading clubs jostle for their signatures, a scramble no doubt related to that fourth-place finish at the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™ and the ease with which the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Deco have adapted to life in the continent's toughest leagues. Such has been the interest that scouts have taken in the Portuguese domestic scene that eighty of the country's players were plying their trade abroad last year, a foreign legion that is growing all the time.
That said, there are few bargains to be found for prospective buyers. As Manchester United, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid have recently discovered, the finest talent the country has to offer does not come cheap, the trio forking out the small matter of 75.5 million euros on three gifted performers intent on triumphing in some of the world's most demanding arenas. Nani, Pepe and Simao Sabrosa are the trio in question, and FIFA.com is here to spotlight their prospects of success.
Nani, one for the future
Sir Alex Ferguson has every reason to be satisfied with the stunning progress of the Portuguese boy wonder he brought to England a few years ago. The wily coach pulled off a masterstroke when he lured Cristiano Ronaldo to Old Trafford, and the Scotsman has since returned to the homeland of his deputy Carlos Queiroz in search of more treasures, following up last May's Premiership title success by securing the services of the much-coveted Nani.
The 20-year-old, otherwise known as Luis Carlos Almeida da Cunha, is an explosive, muscular and fleet-footed wide man who is happiest out on the left flank but more than capable of filling in elsewhere up front. He made his first-team debut with Sporting at the age of 18, turning out 29 times for them last season and scoring five goals in the process. Portugal coach Luiz Felipe Scolari has fast-tracked him into international football and the youngster has already proved his worth, scoring twice in seven appearances.
The new signing made a goalscoring debut for the Red Devils against Chinese outfit Shenzen Kingway, but after celebrating with a series of trademark somersaults his cautious boss duly banned him from repeating the trick for fear of injury. Not that Ferguson is displeased with his latest acquisition. "He's made a promising start but he's still a long way from the level I know he can reach, and he'll need to follow a specific training programme. He's a player with bags of ability, though."
Pepe, the foreign star
Brazilian by birth, Kleper Laveran Lima Ferreira, aka Pepe, started his career with Napoli, a local club in his native suburb of Maceio. His next port of call was CRB and after continuing his development with Corinthians Alagoano he moved to Portugal at the age of 17, signing for Maritimo in Madeira. It was not too long, though, before he was displaying his defensive attributes with FC Porto.
The tall defender has since taken out Portuguese nationality and has been knocking on Scolari's door for some time now. "I've told the coach I'm available and it's a goal I've had since I was 20. The Portuguese welcomed me with open arms and I want to repay them for that," said the player, known as Pepe due to the pronunciation problems posed by his real name.
Now 24, and having pocketed two league winners' medals and a Portuguese Cup winners' medal at the Dragões, the central defender has decided to try his luck with Real Madrid, where he will share the task of defending Iker Casillas's goal with Fabio Cannavaro and company.
Strong in the air and tactically aware, Pepe scored four goals in his 25 appearances for Porto last season and picked up only six yellow cards, an unusually low figure for a player of his position. His debut with the Spanish league champions against Hanover may have not been particularly impressive (he was at fault for one of the three goals), but Pepe has shown more than enough quality to suggest he will fit in perfectly in the Merengue backline.
Simao, the veteran
Player of the season in 2006/07, Simao Sabrosa has since opted to leave Benfica and return to Spain once more. A career that began with crosstown rivals Sporting took an eyecatching turn when he moved to Barcelona in a six-million-euro deal in 1996. But just two seasons later he was back in Lisbon after failing to set the Camp Nou alight.
The six seasons he subsequently spent at Benfica gave him the chance to mature and acquire more experience on the international stage. And sure enough, he was presented with a second opportunity to make it big in La Liga when Atletico Madrid came in with a 20-million-euro offer for his services in July, an invitation the tricky left winger was not about to refuse.
A member of the Portugal side that performed so well at Germany 2006, Simao will be teaming up at the Vicente Calderon with compatriots Maniche and Costinha. His pace on the flank, not to mention his goals and the understanding he builds up with striker Sergio Aguero, should prove just as vital to his team on the pitch as his leadership qualities off it, particularly bearing in mind the recent departure of club captain and fans' idol Fernando Torres.
Aside from this talented threesome there are sure to be more
departures from the Portuguese top flight in the weeks and months
to come. Nuno Gomes, Ricardo Quaresma and Helder Postiga are just a
few of the names featuring on wish lists across the continent;
further evidence, if it were needed, that there are few breeding
grounds as prolific as Portugal.
Although the domestic championship will no doubt be affected by the departure of such valuable assets, the country's top tier has time and again showed its capacity for renewal by unearthing another clutch of top players ready to take on the world. The rest of Europe is waiting with bated breath.