When João Mario Naval da Costa Eduardo graced the pitch of the Stade de France on October the 13th 2014 as a substitute for Cristiano Ronaldo, every Portuguese adepto, young and old, took attention. Another stalwart graduate of the famed Sporting Lisbon academy, the young starlet had taken another leap in his career as one of Santos’ newest recruits
When João Mario graced the pitch of the Stade de France on October the 13th 2014 as a substitute for Cristiano Ronaldo, every Portuguese adepto, young and old, took attention. Another stalwart graduate of the famed Sporting Lisbon academy, the young starlet had taken another leap in his career as one of Santos’ newest recruits
Tripeiro born but Lion bred
Born in the north of the Portuguese peninsula, João Mario would expectedly go on to play for his hometown club FC Porto, but only briefly. Instead, he opted to play for the Verde-e-Brancos of Sporting Clube de Portugal in 2004 at the age of only 11.
Mario would go on to rise up the youth ranks of the Lions alongside his older brother, Wilson Eduardo. Originally played in central defence, the youngster’s technical brilliance was eventually recognised and harnessed as he was shifted into midfield. It paid dividends. Mario would go on to be promoted to the U19 side in 2010 and eventually took the skipper’s armband the following season, winning the national Junior Championship in the process.
In that same season, 2011/12, Mario would be frequently asked to train with the first team by then coach Domingos Paciência having participated in the side’s preseason. He was finally rewarded for a series of consistently impressive displays, making his off the bench in a Europa League tie against Lazio.
During the 2012/13 season, Mario would be integrated into the B team, becoming a key figure in a side earmarked by young, Portuguese talent conducive with the club’s culture as he continued to raise eyebrows a rung below the Primeira Liga.
Hitting the heights as a sadino
The 2013/14 season was the campaign when Mario finally found his feet and began to garner a reputation. He became a figurehead of Jose Couceiro’s Setubal side, making 16 appearances and elected as the Liga Young Player of the Month on two occasions.
Mario’s loan spell at the Bonfim allowed for growth in tapping into his undoubted potential, with regular playing time under an experienced veteran coach the key. Wilson Eduardo highlighted the impact his time in Setubal had on his brother’s development as a footballer: “It was a side whose game was built on defensive organisation centred on the counter-attack. It was beneficial for him.”
In this way, Mario was able to experience the destitutions of the Primeira Liga in a side constantly fighting for survival in vying for the mid-table. Every game was a struggle as the three points were never guaranteed. “Players need game time… as they come to understand the leagues that they play in,” said Vitor Paneira, in the Tondela dugout at the time and a keen admirer of Mario. “He’s a talented player. I went on to face him, and I saw that he was well above average.”
Finally hitting the heights in the green and white
Four days prior to a trip to Barcelos, Mario was thrown on against Maribor as half-time with the tie deadlocked. The decision made by Marco Silva had been one that had been keenly debated for months prior, with Andre Martin’s spot in the midfield three under fire after a dip in form coincided with Sporting’s latest revelation.
The impact of the midfielder was a positive one, changing the complexion of a tie that Sporting had come into with cold feet; albeit the Lions could only muster a draw against the Slovenians. Four days later, a visit to Gil Vicente was capped off by João Mario’s first start in the green and white in his second league game as a Lion. The academy graduate was the fulcrum of every attack, with two assists for his side in an emphatic victory.
As Armas, As Armas
Since his childhood, João Mario was earmarked for greatness in the red of Portugal, and that is reflected in his 77 prior appearances for A Seleção. Pre-selected by Paulo Bento for the 2014 World Cup as a sadino, Mario has been a mainstay in the national team set-up at all youth level, garnering media attention since adolescence as the future of the Portuguese national team.
Making his debut for the senior side against France as a substitute, the youngster has become a revelation for Santos’ new-look side. Mario has found himself a part of a group of extremely talented midfielders plying their trade in Europe’s best leagues having usurped the likes of Seleção great Raul Meireles and Miguel Veloso.
The crest of A Seleção das Quinas has not weighed heavy on his heart in the process, having worn it prior for all youth age levels, having played in the 2013 U20 World Cup, World Youth Festival in Toulon and U19 European Championship. This was evident in his 14-minute cameo, making an instant impact in drawing a foul from Paul Pogba for a penalty, duly converted by Quaresma. Another impressive display, this time in a competitive fixture against Denmark, capped off a remarkable start to a season where Mario is knocking on the door of the Portuguese midfield at only 21 years of age.
João Mario embodies all the characteristics of a modern, dynamic midfielder. A lynchpin in the middle of the park, technically the Lion is superb, with great vision, ‘football smarts’ and an uncanny ability to pick out the perfect pass based on exceptional decision-making. This is complimented by a great first touch and ball control, giving him those vital extra seconds to find his man and deliver that defence-splitting ball.
Mario has the talent to change the course of a match with his composure, on and off the ball, especially in the offensive third and around the 18-yard box. Dangerous from both the short and long ball, and strong with both feet, his passes are extremely accurate, demonstrative of his ability to play the ‘Number 10’ role as he enjoys the freedom to roam and pull the strings. This was evident during his time at Sporting B, starting 30 matches with 11 assists and a goal.
Still room for improvement
Extremely competent on the ball, a brilliant reader of the game and dynamic in the middle, João’s most obvious weakness is his lack of aerial prowess. At 179 cm, his inability to challenge for aerial balls is marred.
Another weakness is his defensive game. Although at times very competent, reflective of his reading of general play, he lacks the discipline, determination and concentration in defence that separates him from world-class midfielders, evident during the U20 World Cup in 2013.
Mario’s game is most effective centrally when he is able to link the more defensive trinco to his number 10; contributing both in defence and attack as a CM. That being said, increased first team action and greater exposure to the rigours of European football will only look to polish and harness already undoubted and refined quality and potential.
A changing of the tide?
As pointed out by Vitor Paneira, this only bodes well for Portuguese football, with a cloud still looming over the amount of opportunities given to young Portuguese talent. “Financial issues have left sides putting faith in more Portuguese players. There are more opportunities as we come to understand that there is talent,” Vitor Paneira confirmed, with years of experience under his belt having worked with Portuguese youth, especially in the lower leagues. “There are clubs who are undertaking these measures, like Guimaraes or Gil Vicente.”
In Portugal, paradoxically, the road on to which many of its youth take strays away from respective Luso sides, instead opting for its European neighbours. This comes in light of Porto and Benfica’s dearth in local footballers plying their trade in their respective starting elevens. At the same time, João has looked to take a divergent path that is conducive with the Sporting culture, unlike his counterparts Bernardo Silva (loaned to Monaco), Andre Gomes (Valencia), Andre Silva (reportedly on his way out) and Ivan Cavaleiro (loaned to Deportivo) who have found life hard at his nearest rivals. But Paneira believes that things will gradually change: “I believe people will eventually come to understand that there is talent and that they need to give more opportunities to Portuguese footballers.”
Putting faith in a tried and trusted system
With young, Portuguese footballing talent currently at a premium that has not been experienced since the Golden Era during the late 80s and early 90s, the time for this trend to be bucked is now. The timing could not be better. There have been numerous claims against the growth of Portuguese footballers in their home country’s championship, suggesting the opportunity for further growth across the border, but many have been lost in the obscurities of Turkey, Cyprus and Romania, never to be heard from again.
In this way, João Mario subverts this notion, taking a route that has borne fruit, with spells with Sporting B team, an idea that has paid dividends with the rise of Bernardo Silva, Ivan Caveleiro and the like, as well as a smaller first flight side in Setubal. Players like Sergio Oliveira, Tozé, Paulo Oliveira and William have taken similarly paths amidst speculation of foreign suitors, only rubber stamping the credentials of a league that is amongst Europe’s best whilst stricken by financial calamities.
A graduate of the Seleção’s second Golden Generation led by Rui Jorge, João is looking to emulate the feats of Sporting graduates past. Having heard the Champions League and Portuguese anthem on more than a few occasions, the future looks bright for a footballer who has put his faith in a system that had generated footballers of the highest calibre. Thus, this marks the beginning of another chapter of Portuguese footballing folklore to be written; and this time… it may have a happier ending.