Phil Town looks at how Porto have fared since winning the European Cup

Luigi Del Neri never got to warm the coach’s seat at the Estádio do Dragão. FC Porto had a chew on him at the ChampionsWorld Series in America and spat him out within the 30-day trial period provided for by Port­uguese general labour law. They didn’t like him. Not one bit. But just how do you follow an act like José Mourinho, who, in two years, had left the greatest impression of any coach in the history of the club? He was without a doubt the great architect of Porto’s success, helped by the club’s ability to buy key players such as Benni McCarthy and Carlos Alberto, but also by his unerring ability to get the best out of previously modest players that had cost little or nothing, such as Maniche, Derlei, Ricardo Carvalho and Paulo Ferreira. 

Del Neri, brought from Chievo, was, by his own admission, “the wrong man”, most certainly at the wrong time. Club president Jorge Nuno Pinto da Costa, nicknamed O Papa (the Pope) for, among other things, his perceived infallibility, and responsible for bringing in the Italian, reluctantly admitted: “I’m not infallible.” Del Neri’s major fault was that he was indeed not Mourinho or anything remotely similar. He was a far from attractive man (large nose and specs – it’s easy to underestimate the power of this factor on the Portista psyche); he could not speak Portuguese, so that all his instructions in training went through the diminutive former player Rui Barros, with the attendant potential misunderstandings and loss of impact; he had only a modest track record (relatively great things with Chievo, but Chievo is not Porto); and then there were his methods.

His proposed highly defensive system sat well with neither the fans nor the players; this was, after all, the team that had just won the Champions League with some flair and audacity. It was reported that Del Neri’s training sessions involved a disproportionate amount of work in the gym with medicine balls and the viewing of old video tapes of Chievo to show what he wanted, especially in defence.

Hearsay has it that centre-back and captain Jorge Costa and keeper and vice-captain Vítor Baía were having none of it. If this was indeed so, and it seems likely given their strong personalities, once you get people with their kind of internal clout against you in a club, you’re going to find things difficult. It was not difficult for Del Neri; it was impossible.

After a few days’ holiday, the doomed coach, straight off a plane that had been delayed in Italy, was whisked to the Torre das Antas, Porto HQ, and shown the door, ostensibly for being late back. Some voices suggested that the Porto top brass had also got wind of Del Neri’s possible involvement (subsequently proven to be non-existent) in last season’s Italian betting scandal. But it will have been the prospect of flopping on the pitch that drove the decision.

Rather too sharply for propriety, Victor Fernandez was ushered in to replace the Italian. Now here was everything Del Neri had demonstrably not been: a good-looking, charismatic figure who had much more substantial coaching achievements under his belt, including an infamous 7-0 drubbing of Porto’s arch rivals Benfica when at Celta Vigo.

Practically his first utterance on Portuguese soil was that he wanted his teams to play attractive, open football. This was what Portistas wanted to hear and the administration, rather than being pilloried for what looked like a bit of a balls up, were actually praised for having the balls to nip the Italian evil in the bud. And Fernandez had the benefit of not actually having to follow Mourinho; he was following a disaster waiting to happen and could only look good as a result.

He came to the club late in pre-season and only time will tell if this will be a problem. But the club has splashed out a bit of its windfall from Chelsea (Ferreira and Carvalho) and Barcelona (Deco) on Diego and Seitaridis, and have the wherewithal to hang on to the highly marketable Maniche and Costinha, a luxury that domestic rivals are financially hard-pushed to match.

Porto are, then, odds-on favourites for their domestic title. They have already won the Portuguese Supertaça (Supercup) against Benfica. Europe, though, may be a different kettle of fish. The games against Chelsea will be a fascinating test: how much of the Mourinho ethos remains and how far will Fernandez have managed to harness this to his own thinking?

From WSC 212 October 2004. What was happening this month

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