IIt is one of the iconic images in the history of the European Championship. With Portugal closing the final in Saint-Denis, Cristiano Ronaldo zooms along the touchline, gesturing wildly at his teammates without limping or with the problematic left leg that he continually grabs to contain his energy.
Both in the breathless tension of the Stade de France that night and looking back now, it feels like Ronaldo is the coach. It was not the contribution to the final of Euro 2016 what his captain and the most talismanic player had imagined, but despite his truncated participation on the field, after Dimitri Payet went through it early in the game, he was involved until the final.
Although it can be considered as a strange twist on Portugal’s best moment on the international stage, not to mention that the winning goal was scored in extra time by a comparative official, Éder, there is something quite appropriate in that the icon is in the sideline. , even if it was the default this time.
If Ronaldo is the brightest and most celebrated in his nation’s galaxy of stars, it is the confidence 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. Jose Mourinho. Jorge Jesus. Sérgio Conceição, who reached the quarterfinals of this year’s Champions League, where his Porto team pushed the eventual winner Chelsea as hard as anyone. Rúben Amorim, who came to Sporting in spring 2020 after having coached just 13 top flight matches and this season guided the club to its first league title in 19 years.
Not to mention other big winners like Leonardo Jardim, André Villas-Boas, Paulo Fonseca, Nuno Espírito Santo and his likely Wolves successor, Bruno Lage. However, it is in the face of coal where the depth and intellectual rigor of the Portuguese coaches become most evident, where the players who have made the reigning champion one of the most feared opponents of this summer are formed.
“We have a very good system to develop coaches,” says Luis Araújo, the coach of the Juniors of Benfica, the U19 team. “There is more time here for coaches to talk, so we are always learning with and from other coaches. It is our passion, but it is about our ability to adapt, because Portugal is not a country with many resources. So with just one ball, we have to do a good training session. With only one bib, we have to do a great session. At Benfica, of course, it is not like that. But in some places there are no big fields or big facilities, so we always adapt and think about how we can improve our players and our game ”.
Araújo has seen a lot, as he came to the club for the inauguration of the Benfica Campus in Seixal in 2006 and since then he has trained all age groups, from under 14 years old onwards. “I’m a bit of a monument here, because now I’m the oldest,” he laughs. Eight of the teams from this summer’s Eurocup passed through the Benfica academy, compared to just three from the group that won Euro 2016.
This is something of a change in the Portuguese football script, with the country’s traditional giants (the cliché in Portugal is that seven out of 10 people support Benfica) less known for cultivating theirs than Sporting, their neighbors from the Second Circular. The list of Sporting products goes 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 as the Portuguese word for La Masia these days, but the history of the Sporting academy predates its move to a bespoke center in the sleepy fishing village southeast of the Tagus from central Lisbon in 2002. Ronaldo, having arrived on the mainland from Madeira at the age of 12, was one of those who boarded in Spartan rooms just behind the main grandstand at the old Estádio Alvalade.
At first, Cristiano, struggling to adjust to big city life, regularly went down to the phone booth at the foot of the main grandstand, called home, and asked his mother, Dolores, if he could return. She made him hold on. “I felt like I had left him,” she tearfully recalled in the 2015 documentary Ronaldo.
We all know how it worked. Even before the facility upgrade, that spirit of invention was clear. The last Sporting coach to win the title, Romanian Laszlo Boloni, commented how Quaresma and Ronaldo, 18 months apart in age but soul mates even then, with the future megastar a B-team player, challenged each other to invent a ball trick every training day. “I think what works so well at Sporting is that there is a clear goal, not only in the sporting sense,” Figo said in 2017, “but also in training young people. It is very important that the little ones have a point of reference like, in my case, Futre ”.
Back then they would have forgiven you for thinking that Portugal only produced extremes. Following in the footsteps of those greats became a self-fulfilling prophecy. At Euro 2016, Fernando Santos’ solution to not having a central striker saw him establish a 4-4-2 with two wingers trained as forwards, with the mobile and inventive Nani, another Sporting product, pushed in to work. Ronaldo’s fixed point.
Now the only problem is perhaps too many options, with Rúben Dias and Bruno Fernandes dominating the Premier League and a true center forward, André Silva, who is coming off a 28-goal Bundesliga season 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 saw dribbling as a talent. Now we want the players to understand the game. So now we make center-backs, we make midfielders, we make forwards. Maybe less extreme. “
The spirit of innovation has been combined with investment. The Benfica campus, for example, has undergone two major makeovers since its opening, in 2014 and 2019. It covers 19 hectares, having initially covered 15, with nine virgin courts, two gyms, 28 changing rooms and 86 homes, 56 for the academy. scholars. “The big change was when our board of directors 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 qualified people in all areas. Medical, physiological, technical, all high-level people. It’s an investment in players. “
The victory of the president of Benfica, Luís Filipe Vieira, and of Portugal, has been to commit to the process rather than quick fixes. “I have been a Benfica coach for a long time,” says Araújo, “and since I have the best players and the best teams, I win many championships in Portugal.
“But for me, the best championship I win is when I see one of these players play for the national team, in the Benfica first team and now in international clubs. The first time that Renato Sanches scored at the Estádio da Luz, against the Académica, I cried. These are our true trophies, may our players triumph at a professional level like Rúben [Dias], João Félix, Bernardo [Silva]. We see them play at that level and that is our trophy ”.
One consolation from Sunday’s narrow defeat in the European Under-21 Championship final to Germany was that it was Portugal’s second appearance in the final in the last four editions, suggesting that the table is set for the future, with Benfica’s rivals Porto, doing the same to focus the academy on providing five players for the team, led by Fábio Vieira and the coach’s son, Francisco Conceição. The applicants, and those already mature, have been credited with their greatest exports.
“We always wonder if we could do it,” Araújo acknowledges, “and José Mourinho and Ronaldo told us ‘it’s possible’. If they can, we can too. So many coaches go out and are successful in other countries, and also players, because if Cristiano and Mr. Mourinho show that it is possible for them, why can’t we? It was very important for our confidence ”. Confidence, after such a streak of successes and so much talent at his disposal, is certainly not something that Portugal lacks these days.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism