3 Reasons Why Portugal Needs to Tap Into Their ‘Fountain of Youth’


Ricardo Esgaio - Portugal U21 - with Luis Martins and Ricardo

It’s About Time

3 Reasons Why Portugal Needs to Tap Into Their ‘Fountain of Youth’ RIGHT NOW!


 

I still can’t get over it. And when I blink, it’s like I’m watching the whole thing all over again. I floss, and I think about Joao Moutinho’s flat cross. I mop, and I think about Nani coming to a complete stop. I order a pizza slice, and I think about Eder’s version of Bambi on ice. It’s that game… that miserable excuse of a game where Portugal actually lost 1-0 at home to Albania.

In terms of horrifying matches to experience, it ranks right up there with the Euro 2004 final – it gave me a loss of appetite, laryngitis, nausea, dizziness, and a broken remote control. But, what sets them apart is that this latest result didn’t come with a broken heart. It came with a full-blown crisis. And that makes things even worse.

A team once flushed with offensive imagination and inspiration was starting to look a little more like the Sahara Desert: sticky, stifling, and prone to evaporation.

A team once categorized as having diligence and focus was starting to look a little more like Garfield: lazy, sloppy, and distracted.

A team once thought of as dangerous and on the rise was starting to look a little more like a sunset: predictable, inconspicuous, and overrated.

What was it going to take to transform this perennial underachiever into a legitimate contender?

Well, after some quiet contemplation over some chourico and pao com queijo, I think I’ve finally found the answer to this life-long quandary: the ‘Fountain of Youth’.

In order to establish itself as a contender, Portugal has to consistently rejuvenate itself, incorporating as many youngsters as possible into their plans.

Under Paulo Bento, Portugal became known not only for tactical rigidness, but, for an unfathomable attachment to aging, underserving players. It was a philosophy that laid the foundation for predictability, and you could see just how easy it was to strategize against them with each passing match. This, in essence, was the root of all evil for the Selecao.

If Fernando Santos wants to help restore our team’s reputation and string a large number of victories together, ultimately leading to a championship, he’s going to have to push it out of its microscopic comfort zone and spring a few surprises on the opposition.

This team needs to take a risk and be unpredictable both on and off the pitch. And it needs to happen now.

The answer to Portugal’s latest crisis of uncertainty lies in the uncertainty itself – the unpredictability of youth. And here are 3 reasons why:

Momentum


For all the unhappiness and insecurity the senior side must be experiencing these days, their partners at youth level are actually feeling quite good about themselves. And that, my friends, is the first reason why Portugal’s tantalizing youth is ripe for the picking.

You remember that children’s story, “The Little Engine That Could”? I do. I remember reading it in between finger-painting and naptime in kindergarten. There are many different versions out there but it’s essentially a story about self-belief and the power of positive thinking.

A train’s engine breaks down while on the way to deliver toys to needy children in an impoverished neighborhood and it’s at a loss as to what it can do. Normally, he’d just chain himself behind another train travelling in the same direction and cruise the rest of the way there, but, on this occasion, that option proved problematic. There was only one pair of tracks going into and coming out of town, and they both took trains over a colossal mountain. Whoever agreed to help him would have to not only carry his weight and the weight of his cargo over the incline, but, they’d have to carry their own weight as well. It was next to impossible.

The train pleaded and pleaded and pleaded for help, only to be rejected consistently. No one thought they could help the train get over the mountain. That is, no one until an enthusiastic, unseasoned convoy came around and replied, “I think I can”.

You can probably guess what happens next if you haven’t heard the story before. And the lesson it teaches is an incredibly powerful one to take with you: Whether you think you can, or, you think you can’t, you’re always right.

Think of any successful person in your life and, chances are, one of the first traits that comes to mind is confidence. It goes without saying, confidence is key to success, and, unlike our grizzled veterans, our kids are brimming with it.

At the under-21 level, Portugal just completed a perfect UEFA Championship qualifying campaign, grabbing all of a possible 24 points in their 8 matches played against the likes of: Israel, Norway, Azerbaijan, and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. This team, which includes such names as: Braga’s Rafa Silva, Sporting’s Joao Mario, Carlos Mane, and Iuri Medeiros, and Porto’ Ricardo, now awaits matches with the Netherlands in a couple of weeks time for the right to play at the 2015 tournament in the Czech Republic. Should they overcome the Dutch – an opponent they were unlucky to draw in the playoff – they will be among the favourites next summer.

Over on the under-19 side of things, the self-belief is also at a high, coming off a stellar 2nd place finish at the UEFA Championship in Hungary this past summer, having only lost the final 1-0 to Germany in Budapest. It was the only game where a squad with Porto’s Andre Silva, Ivo Rodrigues, and Tomas Podstawski and Manchester City/Lille’s Marcos Lopes didn’t dominate. They outscored their opposition 11-2 prior to the final, and earned themselves a place at the FIFA U20 World Cup in New Zealand next summer.

We also had a pretty successful showing at the most recent Toulon Tournament, where a Portuguese team including Malaga’s Ricardo Horta, and Valencia’s Ruben Vezo finished 3rd, only losing out 2-1 in the semi-final to a formidable French side that was playing on home soil. Up to that point, Portugal had outscored their opponents 9-2.

And, finally, our U17’s just became the first team through to the elite round of qualifying for their 2015 European Championship, winning all 3 matches of their mini-tournament against Slovenia, Northern Ireland and Turkey by a combined score of 5-0. This all comes on the heels of this past summer’s 2014 tournament in Malta in which a gang that boasted one Ruben Neves from Porto only lost to England 2-0 in the semi-final despite dominating most of that match.

Portugal’s youngsters are thinking positively, feeling good about themselves, and, performing well. Rather than easing them into the fiercest level of competition, let’s just throw them into it head first.

Waiting suggests that we don’t have the confidence in these youngsters that they currently have in themselves. If Santos follows in Bento’s footsteps and continues to hold these tremendous footballers back, doubt will begin to creep into their minds, and, before long, another “Golden Generation” of talent will be lost.

Now’s the time to let them loose – while they “think they can”.

The Cup of Life


Have you ever been to a high school reunion? You know, when your graduating class inevitably gets invited to regroup at your school 15, 20, 25 years later? Well, the European Championships are starting to look a lot like that beauty queen or muscled jock that’s hit a wall since stepping out into the “real world”: ordinary and overweight.

Euro 2016 in particular is looking quite bloated, and that’s the second reason why now’s the time to introduce as many fresh faces as possible.

The tournament is being expanded from 16 to 24 teams for the first time ever, meaning that an extra 8 teams will now qualify to lift the Henri Delaunay Trophy.

Delving a bit deeper into the details of qualification: the 9 group winners, 9 runners-up, and best 3rd place team will all win a place automatically whereas the 8 remaining 3rd place teams will have to contest playoffs to win the right to play.

Let’s face it, for a team that is mightily struggling right now, and, usually finds themselves in a playoff situation anyway, this comes as terrific news.

Despite recent results, Portugal should still feel confident in securing a spot for Euro 2016, a tournament in which nearly half of all UEFA’s members will qualify. A 3rd place finish in their group – a group which contains Denmark, Serbia, Albania, and Armenia – could, depending on circumstances in other groups, be enough to avoid the playoffs altogether. And even should they find themselves in yet another playoff tie, the competition will be significantly weaker than in years past.

The key to booking a ticket to France in 2 years time has more to do with surpassing Albania and Armenia in their table than Denmark and Serbia – although surpassing them all would be nice – and, for this reason, now is the perfect time to turn to youth. Perhaps for the first time in their history, Portugal has next to nothing to lose.

It won’t necessarily be easy – as we’ve already seen with our defeat to Albania – but it’s as easy as it’s going to get. In the short term, there is less pressure than ever before, and that environment is conducive to the growth and development of young players.

It’s also worth noting that, should our stars of tomorrow get a significant amount of minutes to show what they can do, more eyes will be on them than ever before, opening the door to bigger clubs and leagues in the future, which will only polish them as talents even further.

Under the new “Week of Football” concept, qualifying matches are spread out from Thursdays to Tuesdays, meaning more viewers will be able to catch the most intriguing teams and players on television. The fact that our captain is the one and only CR7 should be enough to garner a lot of attention by default, in turn, directing a fair amount to any blossoming young talents who suit up. That should provide even more motivation for those looking to make a name for themselves.

Quite simply – the Euro Cup has become a cup of life for Portugal and all it’s supporters. Come June 2016, not only will the top 2 teams from each of the now 6 tournament groups advance, so to will the top four 3rd place teams. It wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility to have a team finishing 3rd in their group go on to win the entire competition.

Might Portugal manage to lean on their youngsters, qualify through the backdoor, and go on to make some noise in a tournament in much the same way they did 2 years ago at Euro 2012?  Only time will tell. But I don’t need to tell you  – stranger things have happened, especially at the Euros.

The Greatest of All Time


And finally, the last reason why Portugal needs to turn back the clock right away is Cristiano Ronaldo. He may be human, but he’s a special breed of human – a ‘superfreak’ as I like to call him.

Although it feels as though he’s been playing for decades, it’s worth noting that Ronaldo is still only 29 years old. Now, in the past, the late-20’s and early-30’s would be the age range where football stars start to slow down and approach the tail end of their careers, but, this is no longer true for the professional athlete of the 21st century.

These days, athletes in a multitude of sports areas are in better shape, get better medical advice, and, are paying closer attention to details such as nutrition and psychology than ever before, resulting in a much older average retirement age.

Recent examples of athletes still performing at a high level close to, or, into their 40’s outside of soccer include: Martin Brodeur and Teemu Selanne in the National Hockey League (still active at 42 and 43 respectfully, the latter having just retired from the NHL this summer), Tim Duncan in the National Basketball Association (still active at 38), the New York Yankees’ Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter (the former retiring last season at 43 and latter retiring this season at 40), and Brett Favre who led his Minnesota Vikings to an NFC Championship Game at the age of 41.

Turning our attention to the pitch, one need look no further than Andrea Pirlo, who still dominates for Juventus and Italy at the age of 35, Mario Yepes, the 38-year-old who starred at the World Cup in Brazil at the heart of Colombia’s defense, and Ryan Giggs who just retired last season at the age of 40 to become interim manager of Manchester United following the sacking of David Moyes. None of those players ever looked to be on the decline, or, out of place on grass. One (Giggs) simply retired because he wanted to.

For a better conditioned competitor, just coming off his best season yet, in which he scored a Champions League record 17 goals en route to winning a much coveted ‘Decima’ for Real Madrid, and, scored an astounding 69 goals in 60 games in 2013, there’s no reason to believe the reigning FIFA Ballon d’Or winner doesn’t have at least a few more quality years left in him to give to the Selecao.

In fact, his performances so far this season prove that he does: He’s scored 2 goals in his UEFA Super Cup victory over Sevilla, 1 in his first Champions League appearance, and 10 in his 5 La Liga matches played thus far. That means that, despite his recent fitness issues – such as a bout of tendenosis during the World Cup, or, the thigh injury that left him unavailable for the recent Albania clash – he’s scored a total of 13 goals in his 9 games in all competitions.

Collectively, his 2014 statistics are just as dumbfounding as his 2013 statistics: At this point he’s got 40 goals in 40 total appearances. So, frankly speaking, he’s still good for one goal a game. It’s a ratio that’s one of the best ever seen in football.

Tell me, given the amount of considerable Portuguese talents knocking on the door, doesn’t it make sense to open it for them, and, in turn, give Ronaldo a few more realistic shouts at a European Championship or World Cup?

Ronaldo’s a man of intense passion and almost maniacal ambition. He wants to be remembered as one of the greatest players ever, but, in order for him to separate himself from the rest and surge into a category with Pele and Diego Maradona, he’s going to need to win with Portugal. And, in order for him to do that, he’s going to need to be surrounded by a better team.

I believe that better team will reveal itself the sooner all these fresh faces can be nurtured and developed by Ronaldo himself.

Let me explain: Now, I know that his captaincy often comes into question due to a few outbursts of pestilence hear and there, but, what can’t be refuted is his desire to win, and, his work ethic. It’s an integral reason why Ronaldo’s been as successful as he’s been. If his example in this regard can somehow rub off on those who are still very impressionable, the results could be monumental for the future of Portuguese football and prove to be the catalyst for an underachieving nation.

For every Bernardo Silva, there’s a William Carvalho; for every Raphael Guerreiro, there’s a Cedric or Joao Cancelo; for every Tiago Ilori, there’s an Anthony Lopes, and the list goes on and on and on. There’s even more than one Joao Teixeira to keep an eye on. Could you imagine what might happen if these players got the chance to learn, evolve, and play alongside an evolving Ronaldo himself?

It’s exhilarating to think that, in the not too distant future, many of these youngsters might be hitting their strides at the same time Ronaldo is still performing at a high level. It’s what makes the future so exciting. But, this future won’t be able to come to fruition unless the Portuguese ‘Fountain of Youth’ is tapped into right now.


 

Whether it’s the numerous examples of undeniable momentum at youth level, a considerably easier road to a European tournament, or, the makeup of the legend CR7 himself, this concoction of optimism allows us to hope, dream, and, most crucially – risk.

The opportunity that’s presented itself is simply too good to overlook – now is the time, the time to go back to the future and rebuild a foundation worthy of championships. Because never in Portuguese history has a storm been so perfect.

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