“LOOK AT EDERSON OF MANCHESTER CITY. When he came to me he was just a lad from the favelas, too scared to leave his own penalty area. Now he takes bigger risks than anybody in the Premier League. Bernardo Silva is top as well. We sold him to Monaco and after a few weeks he was speaking French on TV, he’s an example. This club gives the boys life skills to grow.”
Seagull squawks were drowned out by the demands of Luís Nascimento, head coach of the under-15 team who have been crowned national champions four times in the past six seasons. I was at Benfica’s impressive Caixa Futebol Campus that sits on the banks of the Tagus River, a 20-minute ferry ride away from the south side of Lisbon.
Some fellow by the name Eusébio opened the Seixal-based football centre that houses 65 children from around the globe with dreams of reaching the lofty heights that the game can offer them. The factory boasts nine pitches, 20 dressing rooms, two auditoriums, three state-of-the-art gymnasiums, and the crème de la crème, a ‘360S simulator’ in a lab where players are directed to on a weekly basis to work on their technique, going through analysis, nutritional and psychological tests too.
The simulator is like the Footbonaut, first seen at Borussia Dortmund, however this one has robotic-like players that move along the walls of each side of the cage and players are tested on their reaction speeds, vision and technical execution when aiming for the moving targets after controlling the ball inside the 10-foot circle.
“Youth football is a fundamental area for Benfica, it represents for us a set of sporting benefits (the club knows the players and the players are identified with the club), social and financial,” says Nascimento. “When referring to the youth football, do not talk exclusively to ‘train’, we refer also to ‘educate’. Our training process also integrates the academic component. The academic performance of our players is monitored and encouraged at all levels.”
Benfica have a partnership with a local school in Seixal that the budding starlets residing on campus are bussed to each morning, with a further 30 more that stay with host families in the surrounding community making the trip. Nascimento continues: “The mission of Benfica’s academy is to guarantee the quality of technical training and educational enrichment of its players, of all age groups, with a focus on the integration into the clubs first team, promoting human values such as respect, responsibility, solidarity, justice and tolerance.”
As I awaited the arrival of the media manager in the training ground reception, members of the under-15 team arrived for their session and not a single player failed to walk across the office to shake my hand, all greeting me with “boa tarde” after signing into the building; not even the duo that were busy making fun of the security guard’s slightly balding hair – all in good fun, of course.
I was immediately struck by the feeling that this was a special place and we were all lucky to be there. Just imagine how special these youngsters felt.
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There’s a level of respect around the club as players are on first name basis with members of staff around the building, exchanging pleasantries with kitchen workers and holding doors for cleaners as they pass by, and whilet Benfica have gained a reputation as a selling club in recent years, tomorrow’s stars can be sure that their development is in good hands as the Águias promise to launch youth players into the professional game (54 under-21’s were offered professional contracts at the end of the 2016/17 season) and pump the financial incomings straight back into the academy once the outgoing players have departed.
The Benfica academy has produced players that have made the club an eye-watering €250 million in the past three years alone. They include:
Andre Gomes, who made 14 first team appearances after three years at Benfica. Valencia signed the midfielder for €20.5 million when he was 21-years-old.
Nelson Semedo, who left to join Barcelona for €30.5 million at the age of 23. He made 42 first team apps for Benfica following five years at the club.
Renato Sanches, who played for the first team 35 times before transferring to Bayern Munich for €35 million at the age of 19. The Portuguese international spent 10 years at the Benfica academy.
Victor Lindelof, who was signed by Manchester United at the age of 23 for a fee of €35 million after making 44 first team appearances and spending five years at the academy.
Bernardo Silva, who spent 11 years at Benfica yet only featured once for the first team before Monaco snapped up the 20-year-old for €15.75 million.
Helder Costa, who made his only first-team appearance in a 2013/14 Taça da Liga third round match against Gil Vicente before the 22-year-old was sold to Wolverhampton Wanderers for €15 million after 11 years at the club.
Ivan Cavaleiro, who was also sold to Wolves for €15 million at the age of 21 having made six appearances in seven years at Benfica.
João Cancelo, a local boy who made four first-team appearances after spending seven years at his boyhood club’s academy and went on to be sold to Valencia €15 million at the age of 21.
Ederson, who was brought into the club from Brazil at the age of 15 and went on to make 37 first team appearances before Manchester City duly swooped in to snatch the 23-year-old for €40 million.
Gonçalo Guedes, who spent 11 years with Benfica, making 29 first team appearances before being sold to French giants Paris Saint-Germain for €30 million at the ripe age of 20.
“We try with our way of play, training methodology and player profile (adapted to the characteristics of each individual) to have a conductive line throughout our training process, which is common for all ages and allows a better integration of our young players in the professional teams of the club,” says Nascimento.
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There’s a clear pathway here as the B team is made up of 16 youngsters who have rocketed through the system. Competing against men in the second tier of Portuguese football, this is where the hotshots will learn about the other side of football. Tackles are stronger and gamesmanship is rife as winning becomes everything after years of development being the focal point.
Benfica pull no punches in admitting that their goals as an academy are focused around preparing players for the world of professional football and they have a ‘Develop to Win’ motto. Nascimento adds: “High potential players always train to the highest intensity possible, allowing them to be more developed and prepared for professional football. It’s achieved without the pressure to win at all costs, but with the awareness that for us, winning is very important.”
The success of this ethos is there for all to see as Benfica have jumped above rivals Sporting CP and Porto to lead the table of national youth championships won since the club’s all-time top goalscorer cut the rope to inaugurate the Caixa Futebol Campus in 2006.
With a 4-3-3 game model that filters its way down through the academy all the way to the under-13 team, specific principles and behaviours are drilled into players through their teenage years, competences adjusted individually according to growth stages.
It’s not uncommon for a youngster to play in a differing group to that of his age in order to protect the less physically developed individuals and also to push and challenge the bigger and stronger boys. The beliefs and methods remain the same throughout the pyramid.
The young prospects will do well to mentally escape the club’s needs and expectations even for a minute as they’re out on the training pitch for a gruelling seven hours a week from the age of 13 and also spend between 90 and 120 minutes in the ‘Lab’ to work on individual aspects such as psychology, physiology, nutrition and physiotherapy, besides the technical football work in the 360S simulator as well as video analysis. For the under-15 age group, players only get one day off a week and these young hopefuls must eat, sleep and drink football; the minimal requirement to make the cut in this dog-eat-dog industry.
As each under-15 player greeted me for a second time before taking to the pitch for the session, the army of staff then took to their stations beside the pitch. Alongside coaches, physiologists and physiotherapists, each team has their own video analyst recording footage from each training session and game – not a single kick of a football falls off the record at this club.
Something began to sink in as my hand became sore from the countless Portuguese-toned high-fives on this fresh Setúbal evening: it was the number of players who had entered the pitch. From the under-13 team upwards, each squad consists of enough players for three teams. This strategy is not only for the club to facilitate, monitor and attract all the best players from each corner of the nation as they grow at various paces, but also to create a competitive edge and drive for every individual. Each child has teammates breathing down their neck, fighting for the shirt. These are kids, but this is very much a real football environment that is fostered to develop ruthless competitors.
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The younger age groups regularly arrange fixtures in order to give minutes to the players on the fringes, yet the number of replacements often comes in handy for the under-17 team as 12 of them travel to represent the Portuguese national team on a regular basis.
After players carried equipment to set up the session and warmed up with the physiologist, coach Nascimento called in the group of 34 and gave out instructions on the exercise.
No coach has been at the academy for less than 10 years and although both standards and trust have been built, the ‘Mister’ was far from content with what he saw from his players after 12 minutes of play. This is a man who plans every last detail down to a tee, admitting that in the past he has been known to spend an extra 40 minutes re-planning a full session after a player fell ill in the afternoon.
With a cup game only two nights away, the session was constructed around attacking from wide areas with free play for wingers after an overload on one side before a switched pass and overlap from the wing-back. It was a synchronised, imperious exercise and perfection was required with each and every touch, pass and movement.
The players were recalled into the centre circle and, following a chat that lasted seven minutes, they went back out to their positions. What followed was as close to perfection as the coach could have imagined. Barking orders and encouragement to some more than others, the boss knew what he wanted, as defenders were lost before strikers finished from crosses, and rapid counter-attacks were set up to create a three versus two going the other way. The quality had improved dramatically, and a further hour was spent on the exercise – attackers alternating their runs and midfielders given freedom to choose which pass to play. It was like clockwork.
“In order to get the best from players, you must gain their trust, make them understand what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.” Nascimento told me at the end. “I’ve worked with these players since they were boys and I know which ones to push. Wednesday’s opponents will defend with six players in a low block, creating compact areas and I need individuals to take risks in order to penetrate.”
He continued, concluding what had been a day of learning few academies could offer: “The individuals are the most important. We spend so much time working with players individually, the video analysis is shown to each player in order to critique them. Once they’re correct as an individual, with the required understanding of their responsibilities and sacrifices for the group, we deal with them in a team environment, teaching them how to win games of football.”
And that’s the key – alongside learning and developing the player and the individual, these youngsters are taught the importance of winning football matches