It’s been a long time since English football has been in such a healthy state – but Sporting Lisbon youth coach Joao Guimaraes believes the nation’s youth academies are still guilty of choosing physicality over potential.
The England national team has enjoyed something of a resurgence over the past couple of years, reaching the semi-finals of both the World Cup and Nations League, while both the Champions League and Europa League finals were all-English fair.
However, Guimaraes, who worked for several different Portuguese football clubs before being hired by Sporting in August 2018, is of the belief that a desire to produce results at all times in England prevents many young players from reaching their full potential.
“If the player is not talented but is strong physically, he will give more of an immediate result – it is easier to bet that the physically strong player will make it,” Guimaraes says.
“We do not look for immediate results (in Portugal). Some players have talent, but at some point, they don’t produce the results because of their physique for example. That’s the big difference.
“We have to be patient and let them play and grow. A big example of this patience was Bernardo Silva. In some other countries, Bernardo would have been dismissed. He was not the best player in his youth team, but he played in Portugal.
“When we believe that a player will have a bright future, we don’t have any problems by ‘sacrificing’ the present for the future. Sometimes it works, other times it doesn’t, but we must separate the actual performance of the athlete and the potential performance of the athlete.
“The Premier Leagues has foreign managers, but at the base, the youth managers, even with the influence of the foreign coaches, culturally they look at the player and they can’t see the long term.
“Here in Portugal, culturally we have time, the result is not the principal objective.
“The kids must be happy and be completely without pressure. We work with game principles and we put a lot of emphasis on the individual demands.”
According to Guimaraes, Portuguese youth coaching demands one thing above all else: patience.
“Here in Portugal, at the top level we understand that we have to be patient,” he says. “Failure is part of the process. We are not machines. We learn by our errors and it is the same for other sports.
“We look for talent and players who have the capacity to grow. Sporting Clube de Portugal has produced many players, like Nani, João Moutinho, Luis Figo, Cedric Soares, Rui Patricio, Cristiano Ronaldo and so many others.
“We’ve done amazing work because we give liberty to creativity.”
But Guimaraes understands that hard work from both players and coaches is key.
“A player who represents our nation in tennis, even if they are in the top five players, they have to pay every month to have a program and a space to train in,” he says.
“In Portugal, the mentality is something similar to the Kenyan runners – you have one way to succeed, so you have to go all in.”
Guimaraes is happy to admit, though, that the Portuguese national team would not be what it is without the competitiveness of European football leagues.
“Our base work is strong and the Portuguese players have all inherited this base, but without the competition in other countries – without the Premier League and La Liga – it’s impossible.
“Right now, we have both sides of the coin, so to speak. We have a strong base and we have Portuguese players playing in the top leagues and the top teams in Europe, so we are back on track.
“We can’t compete with the biggest club’s in the world because we don’t have the same capacity of investment. But we will continue to produce world class players and sell them for a large fee.”
The Portuguese talent pool is, of course, loaded with high potential footballers (anyone who plays Football Manager knows that), and Guimaraes has picked out two players we should keep an eye out for.
“There are many variables to look at, probably too many, but Joelson Fernandes is one of the ‘bombs’. Daniel Bragança is another one, but it takes time and opportunities to let them shine.
“But we have to be patient because this is long term effect, so even if we don’t see big changes year after year, we have to wait and trust the process.”
By Iain Fenton