Search icon


30th Jul 2019

Partying with Pepe in Porto

Simon Lloyd

Shortly after 10 pm comes the biggest cheer of the night.

For hours the crowd has been building steadily outside the Rectory of Porto University – almost every single one of them wearing the famous blue and white shirt. They fill the square, spilling out on to the surrounding roads.

All eyes are fixed on the stage which runs the length of the museum facade. Various performers have been providing entertainment throughout the day, but nothing has matched the excitement of what the crowd now sees before them.

From behind a giant screen several of FC Porto’s star players emerge. Led by Alex Telles and Pepe, who kisses the crest on his shirt, they take it in turns to make their way down two narrow runways which extend into the packed square. They are greeted with a deafening roar which gradually grows into a reverberating chant of ‘Porto, Porto’. Flags are waved, face-painted children are perched on parents’ shoulders, and flares are ignited.

Witnessing this, it would be easy to mistake it for the climax of an end-of-season celebration.

Instead, this event, held on a Saturday in the middle of July, marks the launch of the team’s new kits. First organised by New Balance a few years ago, the occasion has been held every summer since, growing in popularity each year.

“It marks the beginning of the new season, where us, the players, are able to be together with the fans and we’re able to feel the strength and passion they transmit to us,” Alex Telles, FC Porto’s Brazilian left-back, tells JOE. “Today, they let us feel this love for the club.”

“It’s different, it’s really different,” adds Pepe. “For the players, it’s a nice feeling and important to be able to share such a special moment.

“It’s a night of celebration for us all to be happy and demonstrate the love we feel for our club.”

The sheer number of supporters in attendance offers a sense of what the club means to the city.

“People around here are really proud of what they’ve got,” explains Ruben, watching the event from the back of the square. “It’s like the club represents us.”

“In Porto the city lives for football and lives for this club,” adds Katerina. “In Lisbon it’s different because there’s more clubs. Here, you’re more like a family.”

Reclaiming the Primeira Liga crown from Benfica is Porto’s main objective for the season ahead. With 28 titles to their name, the club trail their bitter rivals by nine championships, despite bridging the gap with nine victories in 11 seasons between 2002 and 2013.

“I can’t stand them winning it,” says Ruben. “I don’t think there’s anything else in Europe like Porto and Benfica. The closest thing I can compare it with is Boca Juniors and River Plate.”

“It’s like North versus South,” says Katerina. “It’s always a close competition but when it comes to Europe, we’re representing Portugal much better than they are.

“That’s a fact.”

While Benfica have been more successful domestically, it is Porto that lead the way as Portugal’s most successful club in European competition. Both have won the European Cup twice, but Porto have also won the Europa League (the Uefa Cup, as it was) on two occasions. Three of those continental successes have come this century: Jose Mourinho guiding them to the Europa League and Champions League in successive years in 2003 and 2004, and another Europa League crown claimed under Andre Villas-Boas in 2011.

Though the Portuguese league’s standing in Europe has limited the division’s top clubs in a financial sense, remarkably, Porto have remained competitive on the continent. Since 2000, they have reached the Champions League knockout stages on 12 occasions – more than Liverpool, Borussia Dortmund or any Italian club.

At the heart of their sustained success has been a shrewd recruitment policy which has seen them sign players – often imported from South America – and selling them on for a handsome profit down the line. It is a reality the supporters accept.

“I don’t care if players go,” says Ruben. “We always manage to replace them. It’s just what we do. We buy cheap and sell expensive.

“I’d love for a Man City situation to happen to us so we could buy everyone, but I think it’s more rewarding spending like £3 million on some unknown Colombian player and winning the Europa League instead of spending money like City and not even getting to a Champions League semi-final.”

A walk through the corridors at FC Porto’s Estadio do Dragao is a reminder of their approach to transfers.

Decorated with images of the club’s most memorable moments, pictures of Deco, Radamel Falcao, James Rodriguez and Jackson Rodriguez – just some of the South American talents that have been successful at Porto en route to other European destinations – are all visible. Clearly, this a system which has served them well, arguably making them the most efficient Moneyball club in world football.

Pepe, who returned for his second spell at the club in January, is an example of the transfer strategy. Initially joining Porto from Madeiran side Maritimo in 2004, he was sold to Real Madrid for €30m three years later. Now 36 and in the final years of a decorated career, he is looking forward to his first full season back at a club he regards as his home. More than most, he knows what the team means to the supporters.

“I’m happy, very happy, to be able to come back home,” he tells JOE as the party gets in full swing.

“It’s very hard to express in words this feeling that I have for this club, for these fans. I’m very happy to be a part of FC Porto.”

The party continues, most of the crowd remaining until the small hours of Sunday morning.

On the surface this is an elaborate kit launch; in reality, it is something much more. Before another long season begins, it is a reminder of the bond that exists between this football club and its ardent supporters. Before a ball has even been kicked, they are already celebrating.