In a country where football is one of the most celebrated and passionate in the world, Portugal has created some of the most gifted players in the history of the sport. Ranging from Eusébio to current Ballon d’Or holder Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal’s production lines rarely stop providing opportunity. One such era to provide such an opening was in the late 1980s and early 90s, when a group of bright, young footballers conquered the world and would continue to do so for the next decade-and-a-half.
This was Portugal’s famed generation, when names such as Luís Figo, Rui Costa and Fernando Couto had people believing again. While the aforementioned three went on to great success outside of their native land, a certain João Pinto, a man as often considered as equal to them, made a name for himself in his homeland with the best of the best.
Together, that group of players won two successive editions of the FIFA World Youth Championship, now known as the FIFA Under-20 World Cup. Their first title was in 1989 in the Middle Eastern country of Saudi Arabia. João Pinto was one of the youngest members of that side, aged just 17, but had a major influence in the group stages. He started all but one of their three group games and scored the winner in their second encounter against Nigeria, a goal that eventually sealed qualification to the next stage.
His talent was evident for the watching world as he stunned audiences with his effortless control of the ball, passing and vision. Portugal overcame the South American challenge of Colombia and Brazil in the quarter-finals and semis respectively, before going on to beat Nigeria once again in the tournament finale. Pinto had a key role to play in all three of the knockout games and, despite not scoring, he topped many scouting lists.
Born in Porto in the summer of 1971, Pinto dreamt of rising just like his heroes, Fernando Gomes and Paulo Futre, and becoming a star name for his local club, FC Porto. But he would have had to take the long route to make it at the top as the local giants rejected him early on. Persistent nevertheless, he joined Porto’s other club, Boavista, in a bid to make it to the big time. It was here that he first excelled.
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The World Youth Championship in 1989 were a great stepping stone in the career of the 17-year-old, and at the end of the 1989/90 campaign, after just 19 appearances with the Boavista first team, he was off to the Spanish capital to represent Atlético Madrid. It was supposed to be the move that propelled Pinto to superstardom, and he had all the motivation he could possibly have asked for. His boyhood idol, Paulo Futre, had been at the club since leaving Porto as a European champion in 1987 and the club’s free-spending owner, Jesús Gil, was bringing in high-profile managers to help the side excel.
But his dreams were crushed in his sole season in the capital as he was immediately demoted to the club’s B team and, frustratingly, never made it to the senior side. His misery in Madrid ended the next summer as Boavista came calling again. The ‘Golden Boy’, as he was dubbed in the Portuguese media, was back home, but not before he won another international honour.
Coming into the tournament as defending champions, Portugal also had the fillip of being the hosts of the World Youth Championship in 1991, and were even more stacked than previously. They won all of their three group games, with Pinto playing a starring role and scoring the first goal of the competition. They would go all the way, winning every game in front of a passionate support that followed them in large numbers.
After Pinto’s torrid time in Madrid, he was able to reinvigorate his career at home with Boavista, and after some impressive performances, including a vital role in the final of the Portuguese Cup where they beat local rivals Porto, he was back on the radar of the country’s two biggest teams: Benfica and Sporting CP.
Sporting seemed to have everything planned out and a transfer to the green and white half of the capital seemed inevitable. But. before there was a signature on a dotted line, Benfica’s president, Jorge de Brito, made a late push for the player and stole him from under their rival’s noses. Pinto was now an Eagle.
Before his capital dream was set to send him into superstardom, he suffered another setback. This time, however, it was career threatening. While on a trip to Scotland for a World Cup qualifier with the senior team, he contracted Pneumothorax, a severe chest injury that causes pain and instant loss of breath; symptoms that could have affected the long-term health of the up-and-coming star. He recalls: “Of all the injuries I suffered, this was the only one that put my life at risk. The other ones were more or less broken bones or ligament damage and they easily moved away from the lawns and did not pinch my integrity.”
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His health problems were eventually remedied and he managed several appearances for the Benfica first team, but failed to reach the promised land of the Portuguese Liga title. Consolation came in the form of a Portuguese Cup success. At the end of a troublesome first season, he remained resilient and was willing to put his best foot forward for the next campaign. With extra zest on the training pitch during the week and an undying motivation to finally meet expectations, Pinto was preceding his reputation.
On 14 May 1994, league leaders Benfica went to Sporting while surging towards the title. A competitive game on paper, this was sure to be a title decider, with Porto and Sporting scratching at Benfica’s heels. That afternoon belonged to João Pinto as he showed off his undoubted skill with a brilliant hat-trick in a staggering 6-3 away win at the Estádio José Alvalade.
His first goal that day was a wonderful display of strength and skill as he held off a couple of Sporting challenges before letting loose with his fierce right foot, beautifully curling the ball past a helpless Zoran Lemajić. His second was equally as impressive as he showed his prowess with the ball again. He received a tricky pass and made his task look unerringly easy, cutting inside before lashing once again with his right foot to leave the crowd dazzled. His third was much easier, showing his predatory instinct as he headed home from six yards out to seal a memorable hat-trick and a title-deciding victory against their rivals.
Benfica narrowly overcame Porto that season for their league success, but that didn’t put the Dragons away long -term; in fact, they only got better from there and dominated the domestic scene for the following few campaigns as their Lisbon rivals struggled on the pitch as well as off it. They were only able to add another Portuguese Cup in the decade following their league win, with Pinto scoring twice in a 3-1 success over Sporting.
They were also frequently chopping and changing the men at the helm, with Toni, Graeme Souness, Jupp Heynckes and several others in charge of the side during Pinto’s spell. But that did anything but affect his form. He was a consistent name on the teamsheet and scored more than 60 times as he racked up nearly 300 appearances for the club. Their failure to succeed on the pitch, however, caused problems off it, and that changed the course of Pinto’s career.
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Benfica, going through financial troubles at the time, were struggling to meet Pinto’s rising wage demands. This caused a rift between the owner and manager Jupp Heynckes, who was allegedly not keen on selecting Pinto, a man the German believed couldn’t play in his system. Speculation was rife over Pinto’s future with the Eagles, with widespread interest from Italy and Germany unsettling him further.
In the summer of 2000, just before the European Championship in Holland and Belgium, the bombshell was dropped: Pinto was released from his contract and would go into the Euros as the only free agent in the competition – something the fans would never have seen coming for a big name domestically.
As good as he was on the ball, Pinto had temperamental issues when he was without it. Notorious for his aggression, which resulted in him receiving a mammoth 13 red cards over a 19-year spell with four different clubs in Portugal, it is with the national team that he displayed the side which no one wanted to see.
In a group game at the 2002 World Cup against hosts South Korea, in which a win was needed for Portugal to progress to the next round, a moment of madness saw Pinto sent off for a reckless and unnecessary tackle on Park Ji-sung, one which saw him receive a straight red card and put Portugal’s hopes of progressing in tatters. The aftermath of that challenge that saw him dive into even more trouble. After laying a hand on to Argentine referee Ángel Sánchez moments after being dismissed, Pinto was fined £21,700 and banned from all footballing activity for six months.
Nevertheless, that sole moment of madness shouldn’t undo a career of magnificence for A Seleçção. Having made his debut in 1991 at the age of just 20, he would rack up 80 more games and score 23 goals, including one against Croatia at Euro 96 and another against England at Euro 2000 in Portugal’s famous come-from-behind 3-2 success over the Three Lions. He retired from international duty after the drama of 2002 to make way for a new generation of superstars including Cristiano Ronaldo, Deco and Tiago.
Benfica’s loyal support hated the fact that their club had lost their brilliant hero, who had been a major influence for so many years. That disappointment was compounded by the fact that he would be staying in Lisbon to represent the colours of their cross-town rivals Sporting, who had so often fallen victim to Pinto. They were delighted that they had finally gotten their man at the second time of asking, and were indulged about having to pay nothing for him.
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In striking similarity to his first two years at Benfica, Pinto had an indifferent first campaign where inconsistency and a lack of support for his efforts saw the club fail to win anything. However, in his second season, the acquisition of the dangerous Mário Jardel – who was already a renowned name in Portuguese football – propelled them to a league and cup double as his partnership with Pinto became the most dangerous in the country.
That season would effectively prove to be the end of João Pinto’s time at the top of Portuguese football. He stayed with Sporting for a further two years but his constant run of games over the previous decade finally caught up with him and he was frequently found on the treatment table rather than on the pitch. He was released from his contract in 2004, and amidst another pile of offers from around the world, he chose to return home to Boavista for a third spell.
Now seen as the leader of the team, he would impress for two years, nearly taking them to the UEFA Cup and being a recurrent fixture on the domestic broadcasters’ Team of the Week feature, before leaving for Braga for one final fling in 2006. With nothing to lose and nothing new to gain, Pinto was an experienced figurehead for the younger members of squad and made 33 appearances over a little more than 18 months, before calling it a day in February 2008.
Often regarded as one of the greatest Portuguese players to have never played a senior professional game outside of his homeland, Pinto is a highly respected figure for his commitment and loyalty to the domestic game. Despite dividing the great city of Lisbon into two very distinct halves – those who support him from both sides, and the Benfica fans who will never forgive his foray into greener pastures – he represented both clubs with commitment and talent.
From his days with the Portuguese under-20s to four different clubs in one league, an abundance of goals, assists and immaculate performances, Pinto touched many lives and deserves recognition for his loyalty to the domestic game and his undoubted talent. While he remains overshadowed by the likes of Figo and Rui Costa, the truth is, his talent often shone just as bright.
By Karan Tejwani @karan_tejwani26