A few of the Champions League quarter-finalists this week had difficulty fully focusing on domestic matters this weekend – but that wasn’t a problem for Porto’s manager, Sérgio Conceição, in his Friday press conference. With resurgent, still-unbeaten Sporting motoring into the distance at the top of the Primeira Liga table, making Porto unlikely to retain their title, the first leg of their meeting with Chelsea – a club with whom the Portuguese champions have enjoyed such strong links since José Mourinho first moved to west London in 2004 – should have hogged the headlines.
Instead, Conceição was picking the bones out of the latest episode in which his fiery temperament got the better of him. He all but came to blows with his opposite number Paulo Sérgio on the touchline in the last match before the international break, at Portimonense, a confrontation which in Conceição’s words “went over the line of what’s acceptable”, and which led to both men receiving red cards. “The pressure or the emotion of a game doesn’t justify my behaviour or Paulo’s,” he said. “It was ugly.”
Not that the self-reflection will knock Conceição out of his stride before facing Thomas Tuchel and Chelsea, who most of Europe believe have a dream draw against Porto. Reality, and dealing with it, is Conceição’s thing. Whereas some have sought to cocoon themselves in football as we wait for the pandemic to end, he has kept real life at the forefront of his – and his team’s – consciousness, constantly reminding his players publicly and privately that amid the relentless pace of the calendar they are lucky compared with many.
Conceição has put his money where his mouth is, speaking recently to RTP’s Primeira Pessoa programme about his life and philosophy (“Porto is my house, and God is my idol”). It revealed he donated “a grocery store” of supplies to each of 10 struggling families after being invited to contribute to Do Futebol para a Vida, a social programme set up to cover those hit hardest by the pandemic, in which Bruno Fernandes and Paulo Futre, a member of Porto’s legendary 1987 European Cup-winning side, have also been involved.
The 46-year-old Conceição was wholehearted as a player, and he is proving to be that as a coach. This is the third time in four seasons that Conceição has led Porto beyond the Champions League group stage, and the second quarter-final to which he has taken them.
Some might suggest it represents small beer next to Mourinho guiding Porto to glory in Gelsenkirchen in 2004, but the game has changed significantly since then – and so have Porto. Prolific and successful sellers in the post-Mourinho era, they have lagged behind domestic rivals Benfica in their ability to milk the market in recent years, which is part of the reason they have been labouring under FFP-imposed restrictions for all of the time that Conceição has been in charge. This season’s run to the last eight has ushered a bounty of €73.5m (£62.7m) into the Dragão coffers, and that number would hit €85m should they pull off another shock and dump out Chelsea.
Conceição needed all his faith to take the job in 2017. Marco Silva had been sounded out, and quickly decided a return to the Premier League was a better bet than committing to bringing back the Liga title to the Dragão after four barren seasons – while simultaneously being expected to preside over €100m-plus of player sales to keep the FFP wolf from the door. Conceição’s stock was high after his transformative work at Nantes in 2016-17, and he had signed a deal to stay in western France – but the call of home, and the chance to be with his then-sick wife, had to be answered.
“I regret the saga that it turned into,” he reflected in a statement after the move, but it has been worth it. Making do and mending, he has imbued Porto with a toughness and physicality usually uncommon in Portuguese football. If there has been a criticism from sections of the fanbase, it has been that the coach prefers graft to craft but compare the resources available to him with those offered to Mourinho, André Villas-Boas or even Jesualdo Ferreira. There is no Hulk, James Rodríguez, João Moutinho, Deco or Lisandro López in this crop.
Instead Conceição has resurrected the drifting careers of Chancel Mbemba and Sérgio Oliveira (though Oliveira, the captain, is banned from the first leg with Chelsea after his brace in that legendary night at Juventus), and taken Otávio and Jesús ‘Tecatito’ Corona to the next level. With the hand he was dealt, winning two league championships in three seasons is special – and they only narrowly missed out to Benfica in 2018-19.
The exception that could prove the rule is from his own bloodline. The 18-year-old Francisco, the second youngest of his five sons, made a dazzling debut in the derby with Boavista in February, four days before a first-leg cameo against Juventus. Standing at 5ft 7in and slightly built, he glides around defenders nimbly and looks as far from what many perceive to be his dad’s cup of tea as a coach as is possible. His teammates call him the “Messi do Olival” (Porto’s training ground) for a reason. If and when Conceição Sr moves on to bigger things, his lavishly gifted junior may be the ultimate surprise legacy.