Manuel Rui Costa: From world-class player to world-class director


He was one of the most famous players in football as he helped the great Fiorentina and Milan sides of the 1990s and 2000s reap title after title. Then he retired but became almost equally as successful off the pitch – this time outside of the spotlight. This is an analysis of Manuel Rui Costa’s impressive career as Benfica’s director of football.

Manuel Rui Costa was one of the most prominent names on the European scene during his playing days. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Rui Costa struck fear into almost every defense he came across with his highly intelligent passing, creativity, physicality, and blistering technique from his famous number 10 role. He belonged to a golden generation that inspired a nation during the late 1990s and early 2000s alongside the likes of Luis Figo, Pauleta and Fernando Couto.

Before ending his career, he moved home to his boyhood club Benfica in 2006, where he came throughout the academy ranks and spent the first three seasons of his senior career. And his adoration for the club never died despite many years abroad. In 2006 Rui Costa took a significant pay cut in order to spend the final two seasons of his career playing and captaining Benfica. When the time came for his retirement, naturally, he got a hero’s goodbye at the Estádio da Luz in the final game of the 2007-08 season in a 3-0 win against Vitória Setúbal. As he was being substituted off for Gilles Binya, fans of all ages could be seen giving him standing ovations in tears, his teammates all gathered around him in the mid-circle to hug him, and even the opposition couldn’t stay away from hugging and thanking him for the inspiration he’d given them on his way off the pitch. A banner presented itself from the Benfica fans reading “Obrigado maestro por ontem, por hoje e por amanxa!” meaning “Thank you maestro for yesterday, for today and for tomorrow!”. It was like a heartfelt scene from a movie.

Photo: SL Benfica official Twitter

Football fans across the globe wondered: what would be next for “O Maestro”? But they didn’t have to wait for long. The day after his final game, Rui Costa was presented as the new director of football for Benfica. The club wanted to capitalize on his high intelligence, eye for spotting talent and leadership, so they entrusted him to be a key figure for the continued sporting development of the club. But little did anyone know, that he would go on to be almost as successful off the pitch in his new director’s role as O Maestro was on the pitch.

Portuguese football expert, Alex Goncalves, who is the founder and owner of the Portuguese scouting site, describes Rui Costa as a sporting director as followed:

– Rui Costa has proved to be something of a natural director of football. As a world-class footballer, that professionalism and understanding of the game has continued off the pitch, and he has been accredited with being vital in convincing several players, when necessary, to join SL Benfica.

Benfica today is one of the best and most efficient run clubs in Europe, and Rui Costa is an integral part of that. Benfica-expert, Helner, who’s the founder and owner of the ”SL Benfica Youth” Twitter account, describes Rui Costa’s role as director of football is a bit unorthodox to

– Rui Costa works closely with the senior team, scouting team and help the young players transition into the senior team. Helping the young players transition has been his most important job. He is one of the people the president trusts the most, especially with things concerning the senior team, Helner says and continues:

–All scouting targets go through Rui Costa. And sometimes, when it concerns high profile targets or very important targets, he is the “big guns” which the Benfica president sends over to close the deals. He’s been behind the signings of Pablo Aimar, Javier Saviola and Jonas for example. But otherwise, he doesn’t handle every negotiation. The president tends to send someone else or Jorge Mendes for other transfers.

Benfica is a club that relies heavily on its develop-and-sell strategy, financially, in order to be able to compete with the top 5 league’s standards. Therefore, Rui Costa’s work of transitioning the academy players into the senior side is of utmost importance – and he thrives in that role. Players like Renato Sanches and João Félix has publically acknowledged his influence off the pitch on multiple occasions by talking about how he’s given them so many advices to succeed as professional football players.

Photo: SL Benfica official Twitter

The list of players he’s helped with this, which the club also has sold for profits later, is extensive and speaks for itself. Some of the most standout names are Bernardo Silva, João Cancelo, Renato Sanches, Ederson, Victor Lindelöf, Gonçalo Guedes, João Félix, Nélson Semedo, André Gomes and Gedson Fernandes. These players are all Benfica academy products and have alone made the club a profit of €336.7 million, with the potential to become €401.1 million, if Tottenham redeem Gedson Fernandes at the end of his 18-month loan spell. The club also has excellent prospects like Rúben Dias, Florentino Luis, Ferro, Diogo Gonçalves, Jota and Tomás Tavares who are currently in the pipeline.

The income of sales eventually goes on to generate the disposable funds to get new players in, and, as mentioned earlier, Rui Costa is also a central figure in the scouting department and in identifying targets to sign. All scouting goes through him. And the list of signings he’s been part of bringing into the club is nothing short of exceptional. During his tenure as director of football, Rui Costa has been central in the recruitment of Nemanja Matic, Raúl Jiménez, Pizzi, Alejandro Grimaldo, Rodrigo, Rafa Silva, Carlos Vinícius, Julian Weigl and Pedrinho. But he’s been part of discovering young players such as Jan Oblak, Luka Jovic, Anderson Talisca and Axel Witsel. His eye for spotting talent makes Helner believe that he “would excel as a scout”.

Rui Costa was also responsible for bringing in now Flamengo manager Jorge Jesus to Benfica back in 2009 from Braga. Jesus would go on to win the club 3 league titles, 1 Taça de Portugal, 5 Taça da Liga trophies and making Benfica two-time runners-ups in Europa League whilst also having some impressive runs in the Champions League. As for today, Benfica has won five out of the last six league titles.

Even though Rui Costa isn’t always the one negotiating most deals, he’s a central for Benfica to function. More or less everything sporting related goes through him. He helps the young players with the transition into the first team so that they can seize their opportunities – which if they do successfully – will eventually generate income for the club to operate with and so the circulation of sales and signings can continue to function. He then helps identify the players to sign to make a further profit.

Analyzing more from a financial perspective, Rui Costa’s work with player transitioning, signings and sales has helped Benfica reduce their net debt by €189.5 million between June 2016-December 2019. On top of that The Benfica Group, who owns the club, registered a €300 million annual revenue for the 2018-19 fiscal year (prior to the João Félix sale), and after the sale of João Félix last summer the club registered a €104.2 million net profit for the first half of the 2019-20 fiscal year –  a 639.8 percent increase compared to the same period the year before.


  1. Great article on one of my favourite AC Milan players.

    Coincidentally, judging from what you’ve written, he would be an ideal director for Milan, although Maldini has done a very respectable job so far.

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