“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.” Luís Nascimento, the head coach of Benfica’s under-15 team – who have been crowned national champions in four of the last six seasons – is talking to me at the club’s impressive Caixa Futebol Campus in Seixal on the banks of the River Tagus, a 20-minute ferry ride away from the south side of Lisbon.
In 2006, some fellow by the name Eusébio opened the football centre, which houses 65 kids from around the globe. The factory boasts nine pitches, 20 dressing rooms, two auditoriums, three state-of-the-art gyms and – the crème de la crème – a “360S simulator” in a lab where players work on their technique, go through video analysis and do nutritional and psychological tests. The simulator is like the Footbonaut, first seen at Borussia Dortmund, but Benfica’s version has robotic-like players that move along the walls of each side of the cage. The youngsters are tested on their reaction speeds, vision and execution when aiming for the moving targets after controlling the ball inside the 10-foot circle.
“Youth football is a fundamental area for Benfica, with sporting, social and financial benefits,” says Nascimento. “We do not talk exclusively about ‘training’, we refer also to ‘educating’. The academic performance of our players is monitored and encouraged at all levels. The mission is to guarantee the quality of technical training and educational enrichment of players of all age groups, with a focus on the integration into the first-team, promoting human values such as respect, responsibility, solidarity, justice and tolerance.”
The Under-15 team arrived to the training ground for their session and every single player walked across the office to shake my hand. They all greeted me with “boa tarde” – including the pair who were busy making fun of the security guard’s slightly balding hair, all in good fun. I was struck by the feeling that this is a special place and that I was lucky to be there, so just imagine how special these youngsters feel.
There’s a level of respect around the club. Players are on first-name terms with staff, exchanging pleasantries with kitchen workers and holding doors for cleaners. While Benfica have gained a reputation as a selling club, these youngsters know their development is in good hands. At the end of last season, 54 of Benfica’s Under-21s were offered professional contracts, with the money made from outgoing players pumped back into the academy. In the last three years alone, Benfica have made more than £230m from selling academy products.
The club has a clear pathway for players, who move through the youth sides before representing their B team in LigaPro, the second tier of Portuguese football. The current reserve squad contains 16 academy graduates, who are now playing in a men’s league, where tackles are stronger, gamesmanship is rife and winning is everything. Benfica’s academy has a “Develop to Win” motto and it is clearly working. They have overtaken rivals Sporting CP and Porto to lead the table of national youth championships won since Caixa Futebol Campus opened in 2006.
With a 4-3-3 system that filters down to the Under-13 team, specific ideas are drilled into players throughout their teenage years. It’s not uncommon for youngsters to play in a different age group to protect the less physically developed individuals and challenge the bigger, stronger boys. From the age of 13, they spend seven hours on the training pitch and between 90 and 120 minutes in the “Lab”, where they work on psychology, physiology, nutrition, physiotherapy, video analysis and in the 360S simulator.
As each under-15 player greeted me for a second time before taking to the pitch for the evening session, an army of staff took up their stations beside the pitch. Alongside coaches, physiologists and physiotherapists, each team has a video analyst who records footage from each training session and game; not a single kick falls off the record.
Something began to sink in as my hand became sore from all the high-fives with the players: the sheer number of them. From the Under-13 team upwards, each squad consists of enough players for three teams. This strategy helps the club attract the best players from each corner of the country, but it also to create a competitive edge. Everyone has team-mates fighting for his shirt. These are kids, but this is an environment that develops ruthless competitors.
After the 34 players had carried out the equipment and warmed up with the physiologist, coach Nascimento called them in and gave out instructions. No coach has been at the academy for less than 10 years and, although standards and trust have been built, the “Mister” was far from content with what he saw after 12 minutes of play. This is a man who plans every last detail, admitting he has been known to spend an extra 40 minutes reworking a session after a player has fallen ill in the afternoon.
With a cup game only two nights away, the session was about attacking from wide areas, with wingers creating an overload on one side before switching the play and bringing in an overlapping wing-back. It was a synchronised exercise and perfection was required in every touch, pass and movement.
The players were recalled into the centre-circle and, following a seven-minute chat, they went back 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 but a further hour was spent on the exercise until it was like clockwork.
“To get the best from players, you must gain their trust and make them understand what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.” Nascimento told me at the end of the day. “I’ve worked with these players since they were boys and 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.”
“We spend so much time working with players individually and the video analysis is shown to each player 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.” And that’s the key – alongside learning and developing as individuals, these youngsters are taught the importance of winning football matches.
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