Famalicão’s players are used to performing in front of crowds of 5,000 at a club that was languishing in Portugal’s local amateur leagues a decade ago. When they take the pitch at Benfica’s 65,000-capacity Estádio da Luz on Saturday it will complete a rapid rags-to-riches story made possible by funding from one of Israel’s richest men and his growing relationship with football’s most famous agent, Jorge Mendes.
The Israeli is Ider Ofer, whose father is the shipping magnate Sammy Ofer and who has raised most of his estimated $5bn fortune through his shipping, drilling and mining businesses. After Ofer increased his stake in Atlético Madrid from 15% to 32% in February 2018 through his Guernsey-based holding company Quantum Pacific, he decided to expand his involvement in football. His first port of call was Mendes, who had helped in negotiations with Atlético’s then Chinese shareholders Wanda Group the previous year through his Gestifute agency.
Famalicão are based in Vila Nova de Famalicão, an industrial town 40 kilometres north of Porto with a population of around 130,000. The club have oscillated between Portugal’s second and third tiers for most of their 87-year history but enjoyed a four-year stint in the Primeira Liga during the early 1990s. Having dropped as low as the regional fifth tier in 2008-09, they had worked their way back to the second division by the time Ofer and Mendes made their move in June 2018. After an assembly of members had voted to make the club a public company 12 months previously, Quantum Pacific purchased 51% of the club and installed Miguel Ribeiro – who had spent seven years working at Mendes-influenced Rio Ave in a similar capacity – as general director.
The arrival of 18 loan players helped Famalicão, who ruthlessly sacked the coach Sérgio Vieira in March, to achieve promotion, although that was nothing compared with the upheaval last summer. Despite securing the club’s return to the top flight for the first time since 1994, the new coach Carlos Pinto was shown the door and replaced by Marco Silva’s former assistant João Pedro Sousa as a slew of new loan signings were also welcomed.
Three – the highly rated Argentinian defender Nehuén Pérez, winger Nicolás Schiappacasse and midfielder Gustavo Assunção, son of the former Brazilian player Paulo – arrived from Atlético, with several others coming from clubs in the Mendes network including Porto, Benfica and Valencia. They were joined by the former England Under-20 defender Josh Tymon, who worked under Sousa at Hull, while the Portuguese midfielder Pedro Gonçalves moved on a permanent deal from Wolves along with the loanee Roderick Miranda. Shortly after the transfer window shut Ofer increased his share in the club to 85%.
“Famalicão has a privileged relationship with Jorge Mendes,” said Ribeiro in an interview with the Portuguese weekly Expresso at the start of the season. “Gestifute had followed the club and when Quantum Pacific joined as a partner, they celebrated it like a wedding. Our ambition is for Famalicão to play at the highest level of Portuguese football and when I say this I’m not talking about staying up.”
Yet even Ribeiro could not have predicted their blistering start. After seven matches Famalicão were top, having dropped only two points, before a 3-0 defeat against Porto in October offered something of a reality check. Successive defeats going into their first league meeting with Portugal’s most successful club on Saturday mean that Sousa’s side are hanging on to third place ahead of Sporting, whom they beat 2-1 at the José Alvalade Stadium in September. Qualification for European competition is not beyond the realms of possibility if the Brazilian striker Anderson Silva can find form again. Plans are in place to increase the capacity of their modest home to 7,000 by 2021.
“It’s a sort of joint venture between Ofer and Mendes and it has taken less than two years to take them to the very top of the Portuguese game,” says Pippo Russo, a sociologist from Florence University whose book The Orgy of Power: the Counter Story of Jorge Mendes, the Patron of Global Football was published in 2016. “With the amount of money and players at their disposal, it’s up to them how far they want to take it.”
Described as the “Fama Show” by the Portuguese media, Famalicão are a very modern example of how swiftly things can change in football with such powerful figures in control.
“It doesn’t bother us, because the club does not belong to Jorge Mendes,” said the Brazilian defender Patrick William. “He has several players … We just want to play, regardless of who is in charge or not, who owns the club or not. What matters to us is what goes on on the field.”