Wednesday, October 20

‘Inspiration and motivation’: hopes and fears at Benfica’s talent factory | Benfica

“IIt was a dream come true, ”says Gonçalo Ramos of his five-minute debut for Benfica last season against Aves. “Only in my dreams could I imagine that I would go in and score two goals.” The striker leads the new generation of players from the Portuguese club’s quarry.

There is a lot of expectation in a club in which João Felix, Rúben Dias, Bernardo Silva and João Cancelo participated. For the players this is a personal ambition, but for Benfica the youth academy is a key part of the business model, as shown by the fees obtained in recent years for sales.

“All the players in the Benfica youth academy, we look at these players as an inspiration, a motivation and as a confirmation that we are in the best place to reach the biggest stages in the world,” says Ramos, 19 years old. of the squad that faces Arsenal on Thursday in Athens in the first leg of the Europa League round of 32.

Ramos’ journey began at age nine at one of Benfica’s five satellite training centers in Portugal, near his childhood home in the Algarve, before moving to Lisbon as a teenager. He was privately educated by the club and his development on the field meant that he played in all positions except goalkeeper and right back.

Nine homegrown players are in Jorge Jesús’ first team, including Nuno Tavares, a 21-year-old winger who played four times in the group stage. As part of their development, the youngsters will have a shot at the B team, which plays in the second division, where Ramos made his professional debut at age 17.

Benfica's under-15 players attend a training session at the Benfica academy in Seixal.
Benfica’s under-15 players attend a training session at the Benfica academy in Seixal. Photograph: Patrícia de Melo Moreira / AFP via Getty Images

“Gonçalo is a forward with great physical ability, being able to reach goal areas and score many goals,” says Benfica B coach Nélson Veríssimo. “He really has a special sense for scoring goals. He has the attributes to be one of the best talents in Portuguese football ”.

Team B is key to preparing players for the rigors of the top flight. “In the younger championships, for a whole season, our players have only two or three games with a high level of difficulty, but in the second division all the games have this high level and all the games represent great challenges for our players” says Veríssimo. .

He appreciates the importance of the youth setup, having progressed in the 1990s before joining their coaching staff nearly a decade ago, including a stint as interim first team manager.

The club hopes the latest harvest will be successful despite fears that the pandemic could affect younger generations. The academy players have missed a year of practice and group games, raising concerns about how to compensate when they are allowed to return.

“We already feel a trend in the difficulty of finding talent with the society that evolves before Covid; now we feel that it is going to be more difficult to find those players, ”says coach Pedro Marques. “We just need to focus on the practice, look better and better and more, and then try to support and challenge them throughout their development.

“There is a generation that has been at home for a year and those that are starting to play have other offerings at the moment, so we have to see how we can regain that passion for large-scale play.”

Jan Vertonghen of Benfica and Nicolás Otamendi in action against Paços de Ferreira.
Jan Vertonghen of Benfica and Nicolás Otamendi in action against Paços de Ferreira. Photography: José Sena Goulão / EPA

João Ferreira and Tiago Araújo, part of the team that finished runner-up to Real Madrid in the Uefa Youth League last season, after defeating Liverpool and Ajax, join Ramos in the Benfica squad. In addition to the first team, the club has high hopes for several others.

“There’s a certain amount of encouragement in the national league, but some of these guys have been playing the same guys generation after generation,” says Marques. “When we go to the Youth League it’s an opportunity to play against different styles, players and tactics and enjoy the atmosphere around those games. The Youth League is an opportunity for the boys to play against some of the best academies in the world and put us to the test ”.

Benfica are fourth in the national league, a disappointing position considering their enviable history. The seasoned team includes Nicolás Otamendi and Jan Vertonghen, who have reached 197 caps, providing role models to learn from.

“It’s important for young players to have the opportunities and to be in and around that environment,” says Marques. “At the academy our mission is to prepare players to challenge in that environment. It is difficult in all the clubs in the world for a quarry player to rise and play all the games. Things take some time but the important thing is that the connection with the first team is there for the players ”.

Ramos is now enjoying the next stage of his education. “In my first year as a senior, it’s the best thing that can happen to me,” says the forward. “Training and having top teammates in the world helps me grow. Even if they don’t tell me anything, I can learn from what they do; they force me to improve, if I want to overcome them ”.

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