When it comes to producing and developing future stars there are very few countries across Europe that can rival Portugal.
The nation’s ‘big three’ — consisting of Benfica, FC Porto and Sporting CP — as well as other provisional clubs have for decades been giving a platform to the game’s biggest names.
Honouring them has been a thing since 1970 with the great Portuguese marksman Eusébio winning the inaugural Footballer of the Year prize, but that award would be discontinued after 2005, to be subsequently replaced by the Primeira Liga Player of the Year award.
To date no fewer than 12 players have taken home the accolade, with three of them winning it on more than one occasion, which got us thinking about how they’ve fared since.
Year(s) won: 2006
Career path: Sporting CP, Barcelona, FC Porto, Inter Milan, Chelsea (loan), Beşiktaş, Al-Ahli, FC Porto, Beşiktaş, Kasımpaşa, Vitória Guimarães
Current side: Vitória Guimarães
The final Footballer of the Year (1970-2005) recipient was a promising winger called Ricardo Quaresma, who many touted as Portuguese football’s next big thing (and not his fellow Sporting CP academy graduate Cristiano Ronaldo, who joined Manchester United a few seasons earlier). That prediction looked promising when he joined Barcelona in 2003, following the path of compatriot Luis Figo, but regular playing time became sparse and he’d quickly return home but, representing FC Porto instead.
It was there his undeniable talent began to flourish, leading to back-to-back awards. A move to Inter Milan, linking up with Jose Mourinho and winning the European Cup followed, so did a loan spell at Chelsea. Since leaving London he’s predominantly played his football in Turkey, most notably for Beşiktaş, where he made over 100 league appearances. Still representing Portugal at the highest level, Quaresma was part of their successful Euro 2016 winning team.
Year(s) won: 2007
Career path: Sporting CP, Barcelona, Benfica, Atlético Madrid, Beşiktaş, Espanyol, NorthEast United
Current side: Retired
Another talented winger that came through at Sporting CP before joining Barcelona. In the case of Simão he’d feature more times than Quaresma, but hardly called the Camp Nou his home. He’d also return to Portugal’s top-flight, though caught the wrath of those who once sang his name by joining arch-rivals Benfica, whom he helped win a league title in 2005 before ultimately switching to Atlético Madrid, where his status exponentially grew.
Since leaving the Spanish capital he’s played in Turkey, representing Beşiktaş, to then signing for a third La Liga club in the guise of Espanyol. The 85-time capped Portugal international would call it a day in 2015 after representing Indian outfit NorthEast United.
Year(s) won: 2008
Career path: Racing Club, FC Porto, Lyon, Al-Gharafa, Internacional, Racing Club
Current side: Racing Club
In the case for many South American footballers, especially from Brazil (for historical reasons), Portugal is often the gateway into Europe and the first non-Portuguse recipient managed to claim the prize in his third season. Lisandro López, who came through Racing Club’s respected academy, would be a recognisable face as Porto went about creating a dynasty in the late 2000s.
After winning to his heart’s content, he’d join another powerhouse in Lyon, but their successful days were over. Nevertheless, López became a crowd favourite in southern France. A spell at Qatari side Al-Gharafa and a short stay with Brazilian outfit Internacional would follow. López has since returned to his boyhood club where he’s still going strong at 37 years of age.
Year(s) won: 2009
Career path: FC Porto, Farense (loan), Vitória Guimarães (loan), AEK Athens (loan), Zenit Saint Petersburg, Fenerbahçe, Cagliari, Rangers, Parma
Current side: Parma
Up until now the first three winners were all wingers, not a surprise as attack-minded players often dominate individual awards. That would change in 2009 when domineering centre-back Bruno Alves was rewarded for his performances with FC Porto, whom he’d been with for nearly a decade. Europe’s biggest names were seemingly keeping tabs on him but it would be Zenit Saint Petersburg that lured him away from the Dragons.
After three seasons in which Alves won two league titles, he’d join Fenerbahçe before claiming a championship in a third different league. Cagliari and Rangers became his next two homes, though each stay lasted for a season. Since 2018 — the year he played his 96th and final game for Portugal — the native of Póvoa de Varzim has been turning out for mid-table Serie A side Parma and now captains the club.
Year(s) won: 2010
Career path: Vitória, Benfica, Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea, Arsenal
Current side: Arsenal
The tide had now been turned, and defenders were getting their just rewards. Growing up David Luiz followed PSV Eindhoven — the Dutch club became a big name in Brazil due to providing Romario and then Ronaldo their first taste of European football — but moving to the Netherlands never became a reality as he’d join Benfica, which proved to be a successful stay as Chelsea parted with serious money for his signature — with Serbian midfielder Nemanja Matić going the other way.
A successful European Cup campaign followed before swapping London for Paris Saint-Germain, but he’d soon return before departing when former teammate Frank Lampard took charge last summer. Leaving English football behind never happened as Arsenal became his latest club during which time he’s established a love-hate relationship with their vociferous supporters.
Year(s) won: 2011 and 2012
Career path: Vitória, Kawasaki Frontale, Consadole Sapporo (loan), Tokyo Verdy, FC Porto, Zenit Saint Petersburg, Shanghai SIPG
Current side: Shanghai SIPG
It was in Japan where Givanildo Vieira de Sousa — affectionately dubbed ‘Hulk’ due to resembling actor Lou Ferrigno, who played the superhero — really started to make waves. His standout performances with Tokyo Verdy attracted FC Porto’s attention, but they had to wait until Hulk’s third season before their investment really paid dividends. That 2010/11 campaign saw the Brazilian forward bag 23 goals across 26 league outings, earning the first of two Player of the Year accolades.
After becoming the first to successfully defend his crown he’d swap Portugal for Russia by joining Zenit Saint Petersburg, where he continued his lethal form in front of goal, ultimately scoring 77 goals in 148 matches. A return to Asia though beckoned when Chinese Super League outfit Shanghai SIPG paid top dollar for his signature in 2016, where he’s currently plying his trade today.
Year(s) won: 2013
Career path: Kolubara, Košice, Chelsea, Vitesse (loan), Benfica, Chelsea, Manchester United
Current side: Manchester United
Arguably the most successful Chelsea loanee to join Vitesse, his first stint at Stamford Bridge only lasted for two seasons and two Premier League appearances. Signing for Benfica, with Luiz going the other way, proved to be a smart decision in terms of Matić’s development. He’d flourish in midfield, subsequently earning the top individual prize in his second season at the club.
After one more impressive campaign in Lisbon the powers that be in west London brought him back and under Jose Mourinho’s tutelage he’d lift the Premier League title. The emergence of N’Golo Kanté, though, saw Matić head for the exit door again, but he would reunite with Mourinho at Manchester United.
Year(s) won: 2014
Career path: Godoy Cruz, Estudiantes, Benfica, Estudiantes (loan), Valencia, River Plate
Current side: River Plate
A lot was being written about Enzo Pérez during his formative years, with many tipping him for stardom. That vision looked to become a reality when the midfielder joined Benfica and played an instrumental role in the Eagles winning back-to-back championships.
His then manager Jorge Jesus even went as far to name him the “brain” of the team and the most difficult player to replace. However, it wouldn’t be long before he moved to an even stronger league. Valencia, in 2015, made him the 10th most expensive Argentine player, but that stay proved to be short as he’d return to Argentina and sign for River Plate just two years later.
Year(s) won: 2015 and 2016
Career path: Guarani, Santos, Grêmio, Portuguesa (loan), Valencia, Benfica
Current side: Retired
By now Benfica were on a roll having seen Matić and Pérez win the prize. Jonas would become their fifth winner after registering 20 goals across 27 league matches in his debut season. He was just getting started.
The following 2015/16 season he’d bag 32 in 34 games, and there was simply no other worthy recipient. The former Valencia marksman had now made the nation’s capital his home and would — after the conclusion of the 2018/19 campaign — see out his playing career in Lisbon.
Year(s) won: 2017
Career path: Bragança, Braga, Ribeirão (loan), Covilhã (loan), Paços Ferreira (loan), Atlético Madrid, Deportivo La Coruña (loan), Benfica, Espanyol (loan)
Current side: Benfica
Jonas’ teammate Pizzi would be the one to deny him a treble. The former Braga academy graduate had enjoyed a near journeyman career — including a brief stay at Atlético Madrid — before signing for Benfica in 2013. His strong showings in midfield during the 2016/17 season earned him the honour of being called Player of the Year.
That aforementioned campaign saw Pizzi reach double figures in terms of goals, something he’s never managed before. Across the next three seasons the Portuguese international would achieve that feat two more times.
Year(s) won: 2018 and 2019
Career path: Novara, Udinese, Sampdoria, Sporting CP, Manchester United
Current side: Manchester United
Bruno Fernandes has now scored 20 goals in 35 games across all competitions for Manchester United.
Reaching a mini milestone with an absolute ROCKET. 🚀 pic.twitter.com/9vnnodxuiX
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) November 24, 2020
Sporting CP had been overlooked until Bruno Fernandes’ emergence. The once Serie A player had joined Lisbon’s other club in 2017 and to say he made an impact would be putting it lightly. Fernandes’ debut campaign saw him notch a modest 11 goals from midfield across 33 league games. Still enough for the award, but his second season was on another level.
By now plenty of clubs were keeping tabs on him as he’d strike 20 times, an unusual high for a midfielder. Among those interested were Manchester United but they were unable to strike a deal in the summer of 2019. But that would be a temporary lull as they’d bag their man several months later. He’s immediately proved to be a difference-maker at Old Trafford with boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer praising his old school mentality.
Year(s) won: 2020
Career path: Monterrey, Twente, Porto
Current side: Porto
The first Mexican recipient of the end-of-season accolade, Corona fended of stern competition from the likes of Benfica forward Pizzi — who scored the most goals (18) and registered the most assists (14) — and ex-teammate Alex Telles to bag the bauble. His 11 assists placed him second and just behind Pizzi as the league’s leading playmaker, while his efforts went a long way to helping Porto secure a 29th Primeira Liga title.
Sharp of mind and lithe on the flanks, Corona was the fulcrum of Sergio Conceicao’s title-winning side, securing Porto’s ‘Dragão du Ouro Award’, while adding plenty of flair and zest to a talented squad. The 27-year-old also bagged four goals to boot, including his Goal of the Month volley against Moreirense in January.
Having progressed through the Monterrey academy in Mexico and enjoyed two stellar seasons for Twente in the Netherlands, Corona is now in his sixth season as a Porto player.