When Nuno Espirito Santo took the podium at the Estádio do Dragão a year ago, he promised to bring his former club back to the glory days he witnessed from the bench as its backup goalkeeper.
In five seasons stretched over two spells in the mid-2000’s, Espirito Santo was a part of four Portuguese League championship teams with FC Porto, winning two separate doubles in 2002-04 and 2007-09.
He retired from football as a Dragon in 2010, taking two years away from football before returning to begin his managerial career in 2012.
The first three and a half seasons of his career on the touchlines were of mixed success. For as much praise he received in Portugal — putting Rio Ave in pole position to reach the Europa League for the first time in its history, as well as the finals of the Taça de Portugal and the Taça da Liga, in his second season with the club — he received equal criticism as a manager of Valencia in neighboring Spain, a club of much larger dimensions and demands.
An initial season in which he led Los Ché to a fourth place finish in La Liga in his first season was quickly forgotten after starting his second season with five wins, four draws and three losses in the first 12 matches. The final nail in the coffin was a 1-0 loss to Sevilla, a direct rival for European football, which left the club in 9th place, far from the European qualification spots the supporters consider the minimum.
Nuno resigned from the club, remaining out of management for seven months until Pinto da Costa gave his agent Jorge Mendes the call, leading him to stand at a podium on the pitch in which he saw almost nothing but success for five seasons.
“I guarantee sincerely to Portista nation, to the fans of Porto, that with work, with union, we will achieve what we all strive for — to win,” he said, standing alongside longtime club president Jorge Nuno Pinto da Costa, on June 1, 2016.
No one could blame him for his confidence at the time.
Less than a year later, a day after his first season at the helm came to an end, so to did his time at the club. Few could blame Pinto da Costa for his confidence in pulling the trigger on Espirito Santo’s sacking, either.
Espirito Santo’s squad showed little life throughout the league season, often dropping points with uninspiring performances where it couldn’t find solutions in front of goal. Though the Dragons lost only one match prior to an inconsequential season-ending 3-1 loss to relegation surviving Moreirense, they suffered an incredible 10 draws in the campaign.
In a three-year drought without winning a league title, Porto was unable to take advantage of rivals SL Benfica’s constant slip-ups throughout the campaign.
The most glaring example came when Benfica drew away at Pacos de Ferreira a week before the final clássico of the season. With a chance to overtake the Eagles and enter the Estádio da Luz at the top of the table, the Dragons suffered the same fate away at Vitória de Setúbal with a 1-1 draw.
It left everything on the table the next weekend in Lisbon, Porto needing a win to put itself in position to end Benfica’s three-year reign over the league.
Instead, Espirito Santo’s squad was dominated by their opponents, returning home feeling lucky with the point they earned in another 1-1 draw. But it wouldn’t be enough as Benfica rallied off five wins and a draw in its next six matches to clinch the title, leaving Porto trophyless for a fourth season.
A day following its loss to Moreirense on the final matchday of the season, the club would be without a manager as well.
As with any other major coaching search, many names have emerged as potential replacements in the week since the sacking, some picking up and losing steam all in the matter of days, the rumors swirling as they usually do among the Portuguese press.
The few strange names brought up by rogue publications aside, a consistent list of six possibilities have been named by most of, if not all the major sports news sources in the country.
Let’s go through them:
A tumultuous second season at the helm of his boyhood club further turned the Sporting CP manager’s honeymoon into a nightmare.
After dropping a late 7 point lead to city rivals Benfica in the final two months of the season last year, the Lions had a historically disappointing season in 2016-17. Out of the title race in every sense but mathematically by Christmas, Sporting also underperformed in the Champions League (4th in group stage), Taça de Portugal (out in quarter-finals) and Taça da Liga (out in group stage).
This led to turmoil between Jesus and club president Bruno de Carvalho. Soon rumors swirled of Jesus wanting to leave the club, opening the possibility of him completing his tour of Portugal’s Três Grandes and ending up at Porto, something Pinto da Costa has made no secret of desiring since Jesus was thriving at Benfica.
But the misunderstandings were quickly cleared up; Jesus has said he’s staying in Lisbon for his third season.
More rumors emerged this week of Jesus departure, only this time to Paris Saint-Germain. Whether or not those are true, it is safe to say that Jesus will likely not be training a team in blue and white in Portugal next season.
The man who turned Estoril from a club on the brink of administration in the Segunda Liga to one competing in the Europa League two consecutive seasons, who gave Sporting its first trophy in six seasons when he led them to a Taca de Portugal title in his only season in Alvalade, who broke an Olympiacos club record for consecutive league wins, taking 17 straight matches en route to winning the Greek League in his only season in Piraeus, nearly pulled off a similarly strong achievement in England on the fourth stop of his managerial career.
In charge of replacing Mike Phelan to dig Hull City out of a hole at the bottom of the table, three points from safety in the relegation zone when he arrived, Silva took Hull on a streak of seven matches without losing at home, winning six and drawing one. His luck wasn’t as strong away, however, as the Tigers lost seven and drew two in nine matches.
In the end, Hull City was relegated, but not before Silva’s name was thrown into the rumor mill, both in his native Portugal and in England. It was reported that Silva had agreed to terms with Porto a day following Nuno’s sacking by zerozero.pt, which was shortly refuted a day later by the English press. His destination was then changed to Crystal Palace the same day that manager “Big” Sam Alardyce announce his retirement from football. Now, it appears he’s destined for Watford.
Who knows what tomorrow’s rumor will be. But if Porto is competing with clubs from the English Premier League, the Dragons are in a big disadvantage financially. The only real advantages Porto has over English clubs are that 1) he can return to managing in his home country and 2) it gives him a chance to get back at Sporting and its president Bruno de Carvalho, who sacked him for controversial reasons. Among reasons for Silva’s sacking detailed in a 400-page report was the fact he did not wear an official club suit to a cup match, which the English press called “absurd.”
Even then, Marco Silva to Porto seems highly unlikely.
Like Nuno Espirito Santo, Sergio Conceição saw success during two spells at FC Porto — the difference being he spent less time but saw more time on the pitch. Conceição had 67 appearances with the blue and whites, scoring nine goals and winning the Portuguese Liga every season of his stay along with a Taça de Portugal and Supertaça in three seasons between 1996-98 and in 2004.
Conceição has experience in Portuguese football, having managed SC Braga and Vitória de Guimarães, the two clubs closest to competing with the Big Three of Benfica, Porto and Sporting, as well as Olhanense and Académica, two teams which have since been relegated to the Segunda Liga.
It was in his native land that he grew the reputation of a players’ manager, one who defends his players regardless of the circumstances. For as much as his press conference outbursts showed this, there was no better example than what he did upon leading Braga to the final of the Taça de Portugal in 2013.
Conceição made a promise to his players before the match — if they could overcome Rio Ave in the second leg of the semi-final tie, he’d make the 24-mile journey back to Braga from Vila do Conde on foot.
When they put in their half of the deal, Conceicao obliged.
It was in another European country, however, that Conceição achieved the most success of his managerial career thus far.
Tasked with replacing René Girard at the helm of Nantes FC in France and fixing the mess he made — the club was in 19th place midway through the season — Conceição took the squad to new depths. His energy revitalized his side, winning 11 of his 22 matches and dropping just seven — two of which to Ligue 1 champions AS Monaco and runners-up PSG — bringing the western French club up to a 7th place finish.
The strong performance earned him a renewed vote of confidence from quick-triggered president Waldemar Kita, as well as a renewed contract until 2020.
Therein lies the problem for Porto.
Conceição seems content in France, like he’s found a new home he doesn’t want to leave so soon.
“Very happy for this marvelous city, its fans and the ambitious project of FC Nantes,” Conceição tweeted the day his contract was extended to 2020. “Three more years!”
Unless the pull of leading his former club is too strong to resist, the move seems as unlikely as the first two.
As his name swirled among the others on this list throughout the Portuguese press during the past week, Pedro Martins was too occupied to pay attention — he had a match to prepare for.
With the league season over, Martins’ Guimarães has one last match in its season, heading to historic Jamor to take on four-time Portuguese Liga champions Benfica this Sunday.
The meeting is a repeat of the final of four years ago, with current Benfica manager Rui Vitoria standing on the opposite touchline managing Vitória de Guimarães to a shocking victory over the Eagles.
If Martins is able to repeat his opponent’s achievement Sunday, it would solidify his bid of leading the club he represented in his playing career to its best ever single season.
While they fell a spot short of their highest ever placement in the league, Os Conquistadors broke a club record for points in a season (62) during league play, finishing fourth behind the Três Grandes. Adding a second Taça de Portugal to the record would put Pedro Martins on the level of Vitoria in the history of the club in just his first season.
Guimarães is the latest stop in which Martins has shown his competence as a manager in his home country.
In his last job prior to arriving at his current club, the former defensive midfielder led Rio Ave to its first ever appearance in european football, bringing the club to the group stages of the Europa League in his first season. Before that, he did the same with Madeira side Maritimo, leading it to the same stage of the same competition for the first time in its history in the 2012-13 season.
The biggest question surrounding Martins is whether his success with mid-table clubs can translate to a Grande. The list of those who failed to make the transition — Paulo Fonseca, Paulo Sérgio, Domingos Paciência to name a few — is long.
Perhaps a more pertinent question, however, is whether Martins wants to leave Guimarães in the first place.
Nearing the end of his contract in June, Martins has yet to receive a renewal, but he expressed his desire and expectation to remain at the club earlier in May.
Given all he’s done in his year, it would be a strange decision for him not to receive an offer for a contract extension from the club, regardless of the result in Jamor.
But this is Portuguese football we’re talking about here — where corruption has run rampant for decades, where what happens off the pitch matters more than what happens on it, where the media often serves as propaganda machines for the clubs rather than to inform the public, where money speaks loudly.
So, while all signs point towards Martins remaining in black and white next season, I wouldn’t be shocked to see him in a Porto training kit a couple of months from now.
A two-time Champions League winner during his playing career with Juventus and Borussia Dortmund, Paulo Sousa was no stranger to success when he entered management.
So it was no surprise that he was able to bounce back from a rough start in the profession in England with Queens Park Rangers, Swansea City and Leicester City to find success abroad, winning league titles in Hungary (Videoton), Israel (Maccabi Tel Aviv) and Switzerland (FC Basel), all in consecutive years.
The nomad made the first multi-season stop of his managerial career in Italy, arriving in Fiorentina in 2015 and maintaining his position following an impressive debut season in which he led the league for multiple weeks before finishing in a respectable fifth place.
The late-season skid his club suffered turned out to be a sign of things to come rather than an anomaly, however, and Sousa’s time in Florence seems to be coming to an end.
With his contract set to expire in June, the Portuguese manager is likely to be on the way out after a disappointing second season in which he missed out on european football, guaranteed to finish below sixth place as Serie A enters its final matchday this Sunday.
This leaves the door open to his arrival at FC Porto, the only one of the Três Grandes he didn’t suit up for as a player.
Of the names consistently mentioned, his is the best balance of realistic and quality. If I were a betting man, I’d place my money on Sousa standing on the touchline of the Dragão come September.
A late edition to the list, Castro’s name emerges after he left his post at Rio Ave through mutual consent two days after Espirito Santo suffered the same fate in Porto.
The connection was instant to the hottest open job in the country was instant — and it makes sense why.
Prior to managing the side from Vila do Conde, Castro spent 10 years managing in the youth ranks at Porto, leading the B side to a title in the Segunda Liga in 2015-16 and even serving as the main squad’s interim manager in 2014 after the club sacked manager Paulo Fonseca.
But it seems Castro’s destiny is back in his roots before reaching Porto — Trás-os-Montes.
It had been reported that Castro had been in discussions with Chaves, a club from his home region, for the final month of his time with Rio Ave. Daily Portuguese sports paper A Bola first reported the talks on May 1, three weeks before the final matchday. A week later, MaisFutebol reported talks were “going well,” as Castro’s contract with Rio Ave ticked closer to its expiration on June 30.
The Portuguese press continued to run stories backing the original story of Castro heading to Chaves, so barring a sudden change of heart, the former FC Porto caretaker won’t be coming back to become its full-time manager.