Benfica’s academy is recognised by many as the leading football academy in the world. More than 15 Benfica academy graduates are competing in this year’s Champions League, including elite talents such as Bernardo Silva, Rúben Dias, João Cancelo, João Félix, Renato Sanches, and Gonçalo Ramos.
In 2022, Benfica’s academy was ranked as the most profitable in the world by CIES Football Observatory, generating €379m since 2015, ahead of Real Madrid in second with €330m.
The scale of Benfica’s academy operation is impressive. 500 players are coached by 115 coaches with the support of 90 staff across 5 talent centres in Portugal. For comparison, Premier League academies are only permitted to register 250 players. But Benfica’s success is built upon more than just scale. Other factors fuelling the success of the academy include:
- Providing a clear pathway to the first team, with the aim of 2 academy graduates joining the first team squad each year
- Immersing players in the club’s culture as young as possible (the majority of players join Benfica between the ages of 6 and 12)
- A competitive Portuguese reserve league that provides prospects with exposure to men’s football earlier than their peers in other countries
- Regional talent centres across Portugal that expand the club’s reach and remove the need for players to move to Lisbon at a very young age
- Coaching players in a modern style that equips players for the transition to Benfica’s first team and leading European teams
- Playing their youth teams up a year against other club’s academies
- Expert psychological support for youth players
Investment in the academy is significant, costing Benfica €10m-€12m per season, but this outlay is massively outweighed by the income generated when its talents are sold on to other clubs. The sale of João Félix to Atletico Madrid for €127m in 2019/20 generated the required funds to sustain the academy at current levels for c.10 years. This was followed by the departure of Rúben Dias to Manchester City for €72m in 2020/21.
And the production line is showing no sign of slowing. The current first-team squad features academy graduates Gonçalo Ramos and António Silva who are valued by transfermarkt at €40m and €25m respectively but can reasonably be expected to fetch much larger sums in coming transfer windows.
This leading youth development strategy has become self-fulfilling. Top Portuguese prospects are enticed by the opportunity to play for the country’s leading academy, improving the average quality in each academy year group. Further down the line, Benfica can demand a premium for its talents due to the academy’s history of producing elite players that translate well to the major 5 European leagues and its reputation for offering a comprehensive footballing education.
The strategy is, at least in part, a response to the economic reality Benfica faces. Situated in a smaller European market, it is difficult for the major Portuguese clubs to generate the media and commercial revenue necessary to compete with clubs from Europe’s big five leagues. A productive academy benefits Benfica through:
- Reducing the club’s dependence on incoming transfers, which require funding and carry inherent risk
- Enabling Benfica to compete on-pitch by utilising elite talent in their formative years, trained in the Benfica style of play
- Generating significant transfer fees from the sale of elite talent to the big five leagues, facilitating the acquisition of experienced replacements
A number of clubs from Europe’s top five leagues are taking inspiration from Benfica’s academy model and are building strategies involving multiple clubs in an attempt to reap similar benefits for themselves. In the last year, PSG and Aston Villa have both acquired stakes in Portuguese clubs (Braga and Vitória, respectively) with a view to developing talent to play in their respective first teams. Whilst Portugal is amongst the leading countries for talent development, Braga and Vitória will be competing directly with Benfica, Porto, and Sporting for top young prospects. The clear pathway to England and France will no doubt be attractive to some young players, but one would suggest that it may be some time before they are able to develop players as effectively as Portugal’s established big three.
Prospective investors, primarily from the US, are increasingly attracted to clubs outside the top five leagues. In addition to the Portuguese clubs mentioned above, Standard Liege, RWD Molenbeek (both Belgium), Vitesse Arnhem, and ADO Den HAAG (both Netherlands) have all been acquired by foreign investors in recent years. The key motivations behind these acquisitions are a perceived under-valuation and the clubs’ access to lucrative European competitions, which has been enhanced through UEFA’s introduction of the Conference League. The appeal of a club to prospective investors is likely to be greater if it is based in a large population centre, has a passionate, underserved local fanbase, a strong regional talent pool, or associated infrastructure and real estate opportunities. However, if clubs at this level are to challenge Europe’s top clubs, they will need to make strategic choices that enable them to maximise their systemic and local advantages to offset their financial inferiority.
As Benfica eagerly await Friday’s Champions League quarter-final draw following their 7-1 aggregate thrashing of Club Brugge, their model serves as a great example of how a club outside Europe’s top five leagues can elevate itself beyond the limitations of its home market to compete with Europe’s elite.
Oakwell has a deep understanding of the European football ecosystem and can offer financial, strategic, and commercial advice to clubs to help them achieve their long-term objectives. If you can think we can help, or just would like a chat, please reach out to Nic Hamer (firstname.lastname@example.org).