It should come as no surprise that big clubs across Europe are keeping a very close eye on Portugal and its world-renowned academies. For it is there, at every age group, that the sport’s next-best players are moulded into superstars.
In fact, it was an associate of Jorge Mendes that revealed agents would jokingly say ‘here comes the bank’ when elite teams jetted across. A talent spotter even went as far as to jibe it feels ‘like there are more scouts than players in Portugal’.
That, of course, is not the case – but the country’s clubs are ripe for picking because of their brilliantly run youth systems, and those in the Premier League have not been afraid to exploit these over the years by splashing obscene amounts of cash.
Joao Felix is just one of a big number of superstars to have come from an academy in Portugal
It would be doing the likes of Benfica and Sporting Lisbon a disservice, though, to suggest that they are simply feeders for the top-flight giants in England. They remain powerhouses in their own right, having won countless trophies in their history.
And a lot of their success has come about as a result of their prodigies blossoming.
At Benfica, their magnificent campus is notorious for producing top talents. In fact, in November 2020, the International Centre for Sports Studies remarkably gave them the highest score for an academy set-up in all of Europe’s top 31 leagues.
The number of players trained, their ages and the level they reached in their careers were all taken into account for this as Benfica ranked above Ajax and Barcelona.
Nuno Gomes was formerly the youth director at Benfica’s world famous academy in Lisbon
This stellar reputation stems from humble roots. Their base is a 19-hectare site in Quinta de Trindade, which is a half-hour drive away from Lisbon. It is here that the likes of Ruben Dias, Bernardo Silva and Joao Cancelo have been produced.
Some other notable names are Ederson, Victor Lindelof, Nelson Semedo, Goncalo Guedes and Andre Gomes – and this is just the very top of their jaw-dropping roster of former players who have quickly gone on to become stars.
They have also made a handsome profit from begrudgingly allowing them to leave. Transfermarkt estimates that Benfica are the only club to have made over £1billion in sales since 2009 – with £114m of that coming from Joao Felix’s switch.
Ridiculous numbers, indeed, but just how do teams in Portugal enjoy so much success with the stars of the future? The answer to that question, it appears, lies with the talented current cohort of coaches, who aren’t afraid to learn from each other.
Luis Araujo, the coach of Benfica’s Under-19 team, told The Guardian: ‘We have a very good system for developing coaches.
Benfica have made hundreds of millions by training up their prodigies and then selling them on
‘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.’
Araujo has played a prominent role in helping Benfica’s fledglings to spread their wings and fly, having joined the club in 2006 – when their campus was officially opened – and then coached every age group from Under-14s upwards.
It will have put a smile on his face to have seen eight academy graduates make up part of Portugal’s squad for Euro 2020. In 2016, they numbered just three.
The club have always enjoyed a superb record of producing the world-beaters of the future
And in between those two tournaments, a new approach was taken to ensure that players, when they inevitably stepped foot in the Premier League, would be ready.
‘We always had talented players but we increased the players’ understanding of the game. A few years ago we always looked at dribbling as being talent,’ Araujo added.
‘Now we look to players understanding the game. So now we make centre backs, we make midfielders, we make strikers. Maybe less wingers.’
During their time at the Benfica Campus, players desperate to make it to the very top will be able to enjoy using nine pitches, two state-of-the-art gyms, 28 dressing rooms and 86 living quarters, with 56 of those set aside for academy scholars.
At the club, everything is in place to breed success – from the hard-working and innovative coaching staff to the environment youngsters will immerse themselves in.
State-of-the-art surroundings at the Benfica Campus are the backdrop to players flourishing
It would be easy for Araujo to become consumed by trophies, but he is adamant that the best rewards come from watching starlets take their first steps into the spotlight.
‘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,’ he said. ‘The first time that Renato Sanches scored in the Estadio da Luz, I cried.
‘These are our real trophies – that our players succeed at professional level like Ruben, Joao Felix, Bernardo. We see them playing at that level and that’s our trophy.’
It is not just at Benfica where this same visceral pride is felt, however.
Reel off a number of Sporting Lisbon’s academy graduates, and their list will also be the envy of many clubs around the world. Cristiano Ronaldo, Paulo Futre, Luis Figo and Ricardo Quaresma are just a handful who have gone on to achieve greatness.
Cristiano Ronaldo spent the early days of his career in the youth teams at Sporting Lisbon
The fact that Sporting renamed their training base in Alcochete to the Academia Cristiano Ronaldo came as no surprise. After all, he was one of the greatest starlets to have graduated from their youth system – and will forever have that accolade.
At the tender age of 12, he made the journey to the old Estadio Alvalade, and even stayed in one of the rooms behind the main stand. These days, the academy enjoys a much more lavish background, the fishing village tucked away south-east of Lisbon.
‘I think what works so well at Sporting is that there’s a clear objective, not just in a sporting sense but also in forming young people,’ Figo said back in 2017. ‘It’s really important for the youngest ones to have a reference point like, in my case, Futre.’
Sporting remain the only club to have churned out two Ballon d’Or winners – Figo and Ronaldo. The sheer consistency behind creating the superstars of tomorrow has also seen them form the backbone of Portugal’s success on the international stage.
For the country’s triumph at Euro 2016, 10 of the 14 players who made an appearance in the final were products of the club’s academy.
Sporting are the only club to have produced two Ballon d’Or winners – Ronaldo and Luis Figo
More recently it is Benfica who reign supreme in that department, however, but both sides can undoubtedly be proud of their contributions to the future of football.
Director General of the Benfica Campus, Pedro Mil-Homens, has reflected on the buying power, and irresistible pull, of clubs in the big leagues across Europe.
‘We have a mission in our academy and that is to produce players for the highest competitive level, if possible able to play for our first team,’ he told ESPN.
‘We belong to a country where we produce players, we sell players. We are not in a country with an economy that can retain the best ones for many years because the budget numbers, the TV rights, count for a lot.
‘The big five leagues – England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain – have tremendous power in terms of buying young players. In our case, the big clubs approach when our players reach the first team and we have to live with that. Such is life.
Benfica have pulled ahead of rivals by producing a host of superstars, including Bernardo Silva
‘Ruben [Dias] is a very good example. If we could reproduce the pathway of Ruben Dias, it would be very satisfying. He came with us for 11 years.
‘He reached the first team. He played more than 100 matches for the first team. He gave us a football return, a performance return and then he gave us also a return on the investment in financial terms.
‘Ruben is a good example of our ambition: We were all satisfied. Him, ourselves, the academy, the manager, the club, the president. Of course, it doesn’t happen all the time, otherwise it would be a very easy task and it really is not.’
Dias and other players who have enjoyed similar journeys owe plenty to the modern equipment available to them in the academy.
They are able to make use of a simulator, similar to the one at Borussia Dortmund, which has robotic-like players who move along the walls of a cage.
Ruben Dias (right) starred in the first-team at Benfica and has become a Man City stalwart
Inside, youngsters are tested on their speed of reaction, vision and finishing touch, as they are tasked with aiming for moving targets after taking the ball down.
As a result, over a period of years, their technical attributes will become second to none. This allows their clubs to look further down the line, which Mil-Homens has revealed is crucial when attempting to guess who the next big stars will be.
‘It is very important that you have a long-term view from the board of your club,’ he said. ‘You need to look ahead and understand to develop a youth football project, you have to be patient.
‘Nothing less than 10 years. If we recruit today a boy who is six or seven, nobody can say, “This one will be in the Premier League and that one will not.” It is just guessing.’
Identifying talent early on is one of the key reasons behind Benfica’s success story.
Felix, during his time in the academy, was constantly tested to become gifted technically
They have more than 200 people watching youth fixtures around Portugal, and their five hubs nationwide begin the development process for their youngsters. After that, if they impress, the Benfica Campus in Lisbon – and potentially stardom – beckons.
Coaching staff have also worked on their own skillsets, and take in outside experiences of their own. At Sporting, their experts embark on field trips to sample different football cultures, having visited Barcelona and Ajax over the years.
And while there are difference between the approaches of Benfica and Sporting Lisbon, they both agree on one aspect: avoiding over-coaching their starlets.
At Benfica, they are continuing to think the unthinkable. In their quest to reach for the stars, they are targeting a fairytale silverware lift inspired by homegrown players.
‘I have a dream that Benfica can win the Champions League with four or five players from the academy,’ technical youth co-ordinator Rodrigo Magalhaes told Goal. ‘It is possible because if you look at the quality of the players we’ve produced.
Finding a balance between selling their best players and winning trophies is crucial at Benfica
‘For me Benfica is the top. The other clubs don’t have the same level. When they grow up here they grow with Benfica in their hearts. One of the main factors is the passion that takes them to the highest level.’
But while clubs in Portugal look to remain kingpins on their own territory, their counterparts in Europe are still searching for the next Ronaldo. After some in-depth trawling, two names often popped up – Felix and the little-known Goncalo Ramos.
Ramos looks set to earn Benfica a very lucrative payday indeed. He has been with them since 2013, having arrived from Olhanense, and plays as a centre forward.
An electric debut in July 2020 saw him come on in the 85th minute against Aves in the Primeira Liga clash and score a double. He was then promoted permanently into his side’s senior set-up for this season and has remained there ever since.
Goncalo Ramos is a highly rated forward heavily tipped to become Portugal’s next big thing
A pressing forward, Ramos, 20, is phenomenally fit, aggressive and determined to lead from the front.
He is tied down until 2025, though, meaning that those interested in snapping him up will be forced to stump up an eye-watering fee.
Felix, meanwhile, needs no introduction. He was tipped to become Portugal’s next superstar after joining Atletico Madrid, but has stagnated there and looks set to move on in a desperate bid to breathe new life into his career. Time is on his side.
Out of the duo, it is Felix who has been tipped the most to follow in Ronaldo’s steps.