Portugal are heading to the World Cup hoping that this might be the year that they finally win it.
Although this will be the sixth successive time that they have qualified for the finals, the best they have previously managed was a third placed finish in 1966 (the first time they had qualified for the finals) when their team was led by the great Eusebio. They also reached the semi-finals in 2006 before losing to France.
This will certainly be the last chance for their captain, and the leading international goal scorer of all time, Cristiano Ronaldo, to win it. He is now 38 years old and, even with his phenomenal level of fitness, cannot expect to be still around in four years’ time when the tournament is held in North America.
Yet he can claim to have played through the most successive period in the country’s history. They won their first major international championship in 2016 when they beat France in the final of the Euros, and followed that up three years later by becoming the inaugural winners of the Nations League.
That is not an inconsiderable achievement for a country with a population of just over 10 million people.
Football Structure in Portugal
Football is by far and away the most popular sport in Portugal – the fact that futsal is the second most popular indicates the hold that it has on the public imagination. It also means that all the best aspiring sportsman and women grow up wanting to play football.
The country’s three biggest teams – Porto, Benfica and Sporting Lisbon – dominate the domestic championship, the Primeira Liga – and regularly punch above their weight in European competitions.
At the top of the football pyramid in the country is the Portuguese Football Federation (Federação Portuguesa de Futebol) which was formed in 1914. They joined FIFA nine years later and were to become one of the founding members of UEFA.
The PFF overseas all aspects of the game in Portugal, both professional and amatuer, male and female, domestic and intetnational. Both the national futsal and beach football teams also come under their ambit.
The governing body is headed by Fernando Gomes, who was re-elected unopposed for a third (and, what, according to their constitution, must be a final) term in 2020. A former basketball player, Gomes previously served on the management board with Porto, and he is now a member of the UEFA Executive Committee.
Under his leadership, Portuguese has enjoyed considerable international success – along with the Euros and the Nations League titles, they also became Euro Futsal champions in 2018, and are the current world beach soccer champions.
This is not by accident. In 2012, when Gomes first took office, he oversaw a strategic review of the country’s football objectives and created a blueprint for internatioanl success, based both on the development of both players and coaches.
Developing the football talent
One of the keys to success on the international stage is that they have a finely tuned system for developing coaches. Because Portugal does not have a lot of resources compared to some of their European neighbours, they have learned to adapt. Including, an emphasis on coaches talking and collaborating, as opposed to competing, with each other.
It is no coincidence that the country has produced a disproportionate number of top coaches, ranging from Jose Mourinho (‘The Special One), through to Carlos Quieroz, Andres Villas-Boas, and the man who guided Portugal to those international titles, Fernando Santos.
In fact, Portugal has made a virtue out of necessity. Because there is not the same money in the Portuguese league as in many other countries in Europe, even more emphasis is put on youth development.
Even the smaller clubs will have excellent academy systems – with a network of scouts across the country spotting young talent at an early age – whilst promising players get their chance much earlier in the first team than their equivalents in the Premier League. That also means that they become battle hardened at a comparatively young age. Resource and good reading: Pedro Marques – the four pillars of Benfica’s academy
And, because economics dictate that the brightest talent is sold abroad – João Felix, for example, was sold by Benfica to Atlético Madrid for a fee of £113 million when he was just 19 years old, there is a sense of continuous renewal, with academy graduates promoted to take the place of the departed.
It also means that Portugal is a good market for teams in England, Spain and Portugal to recruit from – because players need less adaptation time in their new country – and can immediately become members of first-team squads.
Benfica, for example, used some of the funds made from the Felix sale to invest further in their facilities, which now include nine state of the art pitches, two gyms, 28 dressing rooms, and living quarters for up to 60 academy scholars.
And, surrounding them, are teams of highly qualified medical, sports science, data analysts and nutritional personnel.
In other words, the right environment is created for success.
Portugal’s World Cup hopes
In terms of success in Qatar, their first objective is to get out of Group H, no easy task given that it also contains Uruguay, South Korea and Ghana. However, if they can navigate that, a run to the quarter-finals would probably be enough to satisfy their ambitions. There are too many bigger teams for them to have a realistic chance of lifting the trophy on December 18th.
The task after the World Cup will be to manage the transition away from Ronaldo, and to find another proven goal scorer. Although the country continues to produce an almost endless supply of talent off the production line, arguably their biggest deficiency is when it comes to strikers.
This article will be followed by a podcast episode with someone of Portuguese descent to discuss coaching, recruitment, and the pathways to success in Portugal. So look out for this via our podcast, and update on this article.
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Written by Shantanu Gupta
- Cristiano Ronaldo (https://www.skysports.com)
- Fernando Gomes (https://www.uefa.com)
- Carlos Quieroz (https://www.espn.co.uk)
- João Felix (https://www.goal.com)
- Benfica Academy Pathway (https://trainingground.guru)
- Benfica Training Ground (https://soccercampsinternational.com)
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