Portugal’s Millionaire’s club
The Portuguese league season starts on Friday with Porto once again the team to beat. Winners of the title for the last four years, Os Dragões have also collected the Portuguese Cup and Super Cup this year and are clear favourites to land yet another championship at the expense of their two Lisbon rivals, Benfica and Sporting.
Playing a major part in the northern giants' recent domination are a gifted Argentinian contingent. And though two of their Albiceleste stars have now moved on, the club has turned to Argentina once more and in particular to Buenos Aires powerhouses River Plate to replenish their squad for another championship tilt. Not to be outdone, Benfica have also reunited two Millonario old boys as they aim to end Porto's domination, setting up a fascinating sub-plot for the season ahead.
A process of renewal
The talented Argentinian tandem of Luis 'Lucho' Gonzalez and Lisandro Lopez made major contributions to Porto's runaway success of the last few years. After arriving to little fanfare in 2005, the duo proved their worth over the next four seasons before earning respective high-profile moves to French aristocrats Marseille and Lyon in July.
To fill the sizeable void created by their departures, the club has drafted in Colombian striker Radamel Falcao and midfielder Fernando Belluschi, two players who, like the recently departed Gonzalez, made their names with River Plate.
"I'm happy to be here," said Falcao after his arrival in Portugal. "I'm really looking forward to scoring goals and helping the team win lots of games. Porto is a club with a winning mentality and that's something you feel as soon as you arrive here."
Falcao was only 14 when he swapped Colombian league side Millonarios for Argentina's Millonarios. In the years that followed, the Cafetero striker's devotion to the River cause became so deep that he now admits to feeling a little Argentinian.
Physically strong, an indefatigable worker and powerful in the air despite his relative lack of height, Falcao spent four seasons in all in the River first team. And although the Buenos Aires side had fallen on hard times in that period, he still managed to score 45 goals in 110 games.
His qualities have earned the admiration of many observers, including his national coach Eduardo Lara. "He's an excellent signing and has plenty of strong points. He's fast and good in the air and I think he's the ideal replacement for Lisandro."
Helping Falcao to settle in at the Estadio do Dragao will be former team-mate Ernesto Farias, yet another River old boy. "I spent a season with him there and we know each other well," said Farias in response to Falcao's recruitment. "We have a good understanding and we used to play together up front."
Swelling the club's Argentinian ranks this season are Diego Valeri, Sebastian Prediger and former River star Belluschi, who has been drafted in from Greek champions Olympiakos to fill the huge hole left by Gonzalez. The 25-year-old is used to a challenge, however, having helped Newell's Old Boys to the league title in 2004 before signing for La Banda Sangre two years later.
During his spell at River he received the complete backing of his coach Daniel Passarella, who was so impressed that he even put a price tag of $40m USD on Belluschi.
Passarella built his side around the new recruit and made him captain, an honour usually bestowed only upon players who have come up through the River ranks. Although not a complete success at the Monumental, Belluschi did have his moments and earned the affection of the Millonario fans with two outstanding home performances against Boca Juniors and a stunning hat-trick against Velez Sarsfield in 2007.
A versatile midfielder with a preference for the right flank and an ability to score from distance, Belluschi is fully committed to his new employers. "We're going to fight to the death to defend the Porto cause," he said after being unveiled.
Aside from Porto, River fans are also sure to be keeping an eye on Benfica's progress through the season. Having bought Pablo Aimar last year, As Águias have teamed him up with fellow Millonario academy graduate Javier Saviola, who has decamped to the Portuguese capital in a similar bid to rediscover lost form.
El Conejo (The Rabbit) made his first division debut with River at the age of 16, but after walking away with the adidas Golden Shoe and adidas Golden Ball at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Argentina 2001 his career has taken a puzzling turn. Though the diminutive striker has scored goals for some of the biggest clubs on the planet, Barcelona and Real Madrid among them, he did so without ever holding down a regular first-team place. Now comes a shot at redemption.
Like Saviola, Aimar moved to Lisbon to resurrect a faltering career. A member of the Argentina side that won the FIFA U-20 World Cup Malaysia 1997, the Cordoba-born midfielder excelled in his first four seasons with Spanish side Valencia before succumbing to a string of injuries. A spell with Real Zaragoza followed and when they were relegated Benfica offered him the chance to return to the limelight.
"Aimar and Saviola are tremendously talented, have a real football pedigree and know each other very well," explains Ramon Diaz, who coached the duo in River's 1999 Argentinian Apertura title-winning side. "Benfica have got two diamonds there, I can tell you. Aimar is the more gifted player. He's an out-and-out No10 who can also play as a striker, though he's not as effective in that position. Saviola has the knack of arriving in the right place at the right time. He reads the game well, he's a born goalscorer and he's not selfish."
With their up-and-coming compatriot Angel de Maria also beginning to impress, Aimar and Saviola will no doubt be hoping Benfica's Argentinian posse can outgun their fellow countrymen up the road in Porto. And whatever happens during the course of the Portuguese season, the burgeoning community of River old boys is sure to have a big say in the destiny of the championship.