How Portugal became a European super power in football | Andy Brassell
It is one of the iconic images of European Championship history. With Portugal closing out the final in Saint-Denis, Cristiano Ronaldo buzzes down the touchline, gesticulating wildly to his teammates with neither a limp nor the troublesome left leg that he continually clutches fettering his energy.
Both in the breathless tension of the Stade de France that night and re-watching now, it feels as if Ronaldo is the coach. It was not the contribution to the Euro 2016 final that their captain and most talismanic player had imagined but despite his truncated involvement on the field, after Dimitri Payet ploughed through him early in the game, he was involved right to the end.
Although it can be considered as a strange twist in Portugal’s greatest moment on the international stage – not to mention that the winning goal was scored deep into extra time by a comparative journeyman, Éder – there is something quite fitting about the icon being on the touchline, even if it was by default on this occasion.
If Ronaldo is the brightest and most celebrated of his nation’s galaxy of stars, it is the brains trust of coaches that has helped propel a country of 10 million people to the forefront of European football in the 21st century.
The most visible side of that is the superstar coach. José Mourinho. Jorge Jesus. Sérgio Conceição, who reached this year’s Champions League quarter-final where his Porto side pushed the eventual winners Chelsea as hard as anyone did. Rúben Amorim, who arrived at Sporting in spring 2020 having coached only 13 top-flight games and this season guided the club to their first Liga title in 19 years.
That’s without mentioning other high achievers such as Leonardo Jardim, André Villas-Boas, Paulo Fonseca, Nuno Espírito Santo and his likely successor at Wolves, Bruno Lage. Yet it is at the coalface that the depth and intellectual rigour of Portuguese coaches is most evident, where the players who have made the reigning champions one of this summer’s most feared opponents are shaped.
“We have a very good system for developing coaches,” says Luis Araújo, the coach of Benfica’s Juniores, the under-19 team. “There is more time here for coaches to talk, so we are always learning with and from other coaches. It’s our passion, but it’s about our capacity to adapt, because Portugal isn’t a country with a lot of resources. So with only one ball, we have to put on a good training session. With only one bib, we have to put on a great session. At Benfica, of course, it’s not like that. But in some places you don’t have great pitches and great facilities, so we’re always adapting and thinking how we can improve our players and our game.”
Araújo has seen a lot, having arrived at the club for the opening of the Benfica Campus at Seixal in 2006 and coached every age group from under-14s upwards since. “I’m a bit of a monument here, because I’m the oldest one now,” he laughs. Eight of this summer’s squad for the Euros came through the Benfica academy, compared with only three from the group that won Euro 2016.
This is something of a flipping of Portuguese football’s script, with the country’s traditional giants (the cliche in Portugal goes that seven out of 10 people support Benfica) less known for growing their own than Sporting, their neighbours from along the Segundo Circular. The list of Sporting products trips off the tongue: Paulo Futre, Luís Figo, Ricardo Quaresma, Simão Sabrosa. And, of course, Ronaldo, with the club’s training base in Alcochete renamed Academia Cristiano Ronaldo last September.
Alcochete is taken these days as the Portuguese word for La Masia, but the story of Sporting’s academy predates its move to a bespoke centre in the sleepy fishing village south-east across the Tagus from central Lisbon in 2002. Ronaldo, having come across to the mainland from Madeira at the age of 12, was one of those who boarded in spartan rooms just behind the main stand at the old Estádio Alvalade.
At the beginning Cristiano, struggling to adapt to big city life, would regularly come down to the phone booth at the foot of the main stand, call home and ask his mother, Dolores, if he could come back. She made him stick it out. “I felt like I had abandoned him,” she remembered through tears in the 2015 documentary, Ronaldo.
We all know how it worked out. Even before the upgrade in facilities, that spirit of invention was clear. Sporting’s last title-winning coach, the Romanian Laszlo Boloni, remarked how Quaresma and Ronaldo – 18 months apart in age but kindred spirits even then, with the future megastar a B-team player – set each other a challenge to invent a ball trick every day in training. “I think what works so well at Sporting is that there’s a clear objective, not just in a sporting sense,” said Figo back in 2017, “but also in forming young people. It’s really important for the youngest ones to have a reference point like, in my case, Futre.”
You would have been forgiven back then for thinking that Portugal only produced wingers. Following in the footsteps of those greats became a self-fulfilling prophecy. In Euro 2016, Fernando Santos’s solution to having no go-to centre-forward saw him set up a 4-4-2 with two trained wingers as his strikers, with the mobile and inventive Nani – another Sporting product – pushed inside to work around the fixed point of Ronaldo.
Now, the only issue is one of maybe too much choice, with Rúben Dias and Bruno Fernandes dominating the Premier League and an authentic centre-forward, André Silva, coming off a 28-goal season in the Bundesliga with Eintracht Frankfurt. “We always had talented players,” says Araújo, “but we increased the players’ understanding of the game. I think a few years ago we always looked at dribbling as being talent. Now we look to players understanding the game. So now we make centre-backs, we make midfielders, we make strikers. Maybe less wingers.”
The spirit of innovation has been matched with investment. The Benfica Campus, for example, has had two significant makeovers since its opening, in 2014 and 2019. It covers 19 hectares, having initially spanned 15, with nine pristine pitches, two gyms, 28 dressing rooms and 86 living quarters – 56 for academy scholars. “The big change was when our board made the youth academy a priority in our philosophy,” says Araújo. “They invested in our facilities, which are very good, and in human resources, in people who are qualified in all areas. Medical, physiological, technical, all people of a high level. It’s investment in players.”
The victory for Benfica’s president, Luís Filipe Vieira – and Portugal – has been to engage with process rather than quick fixes. “I’ve been a coach at Benfica for a long time,” says Araújo, “and because I have the best players and the best teams, I win a lot of championships in Portugal.
“But for me the best championship that I win is when I see one of these players play in the national team, the Benfica first team and now international clubs. The first time that Renato Sanches scored in the Estádio da Luz, against Académica, I cried. These are our real trophies – that our players succeed at professional level like Rúben [Dias], João Félix, Bernardo [Silva]. We see them playing at that level and that’s our trophy.”
A consolation from the narrow loss in Sunday’s European Under-21 Championship final to Germany was that it was Portugal’s second appearance in the final in the last four editions, suggesting the table is set for the future, with Benfica’s rivals Porto following suit in concentrating on the academy in providing five players for the squad, led by Fábio Vieira and the coach’s son, Francisco Conceição. The hopefuls, and the already mature, have been given belief by their biggest exports.
“We always asked each other if we could do it,” acknowledges Araújo, “and José Mourinho and Ronaldo said to us ‘it’s possible’. If they can, we can too. So a lot of coaches go out and are successful in other countries, and players too, because if Cristiano and Mr Mourinho show it’s possible for them, why can’t we do it? It was very important for our confidence.” Confidence, after such a run of success and such talent at their disposal, is certainly not something that Portugal lack these days.