Yesterday, 5 January, was a notable day for the “B teams project” in Portugal, and not because of events on the pitch, as Benfica B beat Sporting B 1-0 at Alcochete.
Portuguese Football Federation President Fernando Gomes said that the investment in B teams should be increased, only for Sporting President Bruno de Carvalho to counter that Sporting B may be disbanded at the end of the season.
Marcos Vitorino discusses the underlying issues afflicting an initiative that was created to boost the supply line of players for the Seleção.
The different views
Speaking in the FPF 360 magazine, Fernando Gomes argued that: “The introduction of the B teams in the Segunda Liga (Portuguese 2nd tier) has allowed a group of young players to have a much better competitive space and has led to good results in the U21 and U19 national teams.”
He added that talks have been held to enable the emergence of more B teams, not only from Portugal’s major sides. And according to Portuguese sports daily Record, four more clubs are planning to have B sides in 2015/16 – Académica, Boavista, Rio Ave and Belenenses.
Yet, ironically, the standard bearers of youth development in Portugal, Sporting Clube de Portugal, have demanded that three changes be implemented to the present rules and if they aren’t, Sporting B may be terminated.
- B teams should be made up for the most part of players aged 21 years or under. Only five players over 21 years old could be enrolled.
- More flexibility should be introduced in order for players from the first team to be used regularly in the B team, so they can improve match fitness for example.
- The home matches should be played in the training centre stadiums of the clubs – in Sporting’s case in the Alcochete Academy. This is the situation at present, but planned changes in the regulations will make it impossible from next season.
Sporting’s B team was created in 2000/01 and was active until 2003/04. It was resumed in 2011/12, along with the B teams of another five clubs (Benfica, Porto, Braga, Vitória Guimarães and Marítimo) due to the re-launch of the idea in Portugal.
According to Record, the annual operating costs of Sporting B amount to 1.8 million euros, even accounting for the 53% cost-cutting initiative implemented by Bruno de Carvalho’s administration. During the mandate of the previous president, Godinho Lopes, the yearly cost reached 3.8 million euros. As for revenue, Record calculated a sum of 37.5 million euros coming from transfers of former B team players.
The role of B teams
The underlying idea behind the creation of the B teams three years ago was to enhance the opportunities for young Portuguese footballers, and in turn increase the number of players available for selection to the Portugal youth squads, and eventually the senior Seleção team.
B teams, provided they are coached in accordance with the first team’s methods and ideas, should aid the development of young talents, preparing them for promotion to the first-team squad. B teams can be a positive way of easing the transition from U-19s to senior football, as in Portugal the gap between the two levels is huge.
By guaranteeing playing time in a demanding and competitive environment, B teams are a more flexible alternative to sending young players out on loan, who sometimes have only a remote chance of playing, which obviously does not contribute to the goal of aiding their development.
Of course, loans can still happen at a later stage, either to other top-flight teams or to clubs abroad, in order to provide the players with a more challenging and fast growing experience and also to test them in harsher environments. Recent examples of successful loans for Sporting players can be seen with Adrien and Cédric (Académica), William Carvalho (Cercle Brugge, Belgium) and João Mário (Vitória Setúbal), all of whom matured significantly while out on loan and are now regulars for the first team.
In addition to the final purpose of integrating players into the senior side, B teams can also give young players a stage on which to show their potential, so they can be transferred to other interested parties. This is a distinct but valid method of monetising the investment made in player development. The number of young Portuguese players transferred directly from the “academy” to top-flight European powerhouses has increased in the past years.
One can cite examples such as Marcos Lopes who went from the Benfica U19 set-up to Manchester City at the age of 17. Agostinho Cá and Edgar Ié joined Barcelona directly from Sporting U19s, without ever getting a sniff of first-team football. Bruno Fernandes, whose impact on Serie A was recently highlighted by PortuGOAL, is a regular for Udinese having transferred to Novara from Boavista’s youth set-up when only 17 years old. Some youth players depart for foreign climes completely under the radar of most football fans, like Pedro Delgado, now a Portuguese U18 international, who after two years with Sporting was transferred from Portimonense to Inter at the age of 16.
Unfortunately, and apparently because of a lack of long-term strategy to get the most out of the two investment approaches outlined above, the B teams are becoming an increasing financial burden for the clubs. So much so that the whole concept of the utility of having B teams is being brought into question. The wage bill of the players and coaches seems to be excessive, not to mention the expenses entailed in participating in a nationwide League far outstripping the income the B team is able to generate from gate receipts and sponsorship.
As they say, “money makes the world go round.” Clubs that successfully promote players to the first team, or that manage to obtain substantial revenue by transferring their home-produced talents, are expected to maintain their B sides. In contrast, for clubs where revenue cannot be obtained from the B squads, the project is unsustainable.
Unfortunately, most clubs seem to be in the latter situation, bringing the very real threat that the B-team experiment is going through its death throes.
Especially in a country like Portugal, with all its particularities, all parties involved must be called to action and to think strategically if they really want to reverse the situation.
By Marcos Vitorino