Portuguese football is very much in vogue right now. Deco
confidently pulls the strings in the midfield for Barcelona, last
season's UEFA Champions League winners. Cristiano Ronaldo
continues to enrapture fans of the Manchester United with his wing
wizardry, and Jose Mourinho remains a captivating figure at the
helm of Chelsea.
As for the national team, the Selecção das Quinas claimed the scalp of Dunga's Brazil only last week , once more rousing expectations among fans still buzzing from the team's highly commendable fourth-place finish at the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™.
Following hard on the heels of these hugely successful Portuguese exports comes a group of younger though no less ambitious Lusitanians: the national U-20 squad. Fast-improving, with dreams of emulating their illustrious compatriots, these youngsters are already meticulously preparing for this summer's FIFA U-20 World Cup in Canada , where they aim to show the world that the future of Portuguese football is in safe hands.
The coaching team tasked with finding this winning formula is headed by Jose Couceiro and his assistant Rui Cacador. Eight years on from Portugal's last appearance in this competition, the coach recognises the sense of optimism surrounding the team but insists that prudence, more than anything, is now needed.
"We qualified for the World Cup thanks to our sixth-place finish at the UEFA U-19 Championship," he said. "So it will be as Europe's sixth side that we travel to Canada, where we'll also face the best teams from South American and Africa, both traditionally very strong in this event. We mustn't put unnecessary pressure on this group as they are still in the process of developing." That said, Couceiro is the first to concede that a failure to reach at least the knockout stages in Canada would be hugely disappointing.
Portugal won the first of their two FIFA U-20 World Cups in Saudi Arabia in 1989 under the tutelage of Carlos Queiroz, currently Sir Alex Ferguson's number two at Manchester United. Inspired by that all-conquering side, which included the likes of Fernando Couto, Amaral and Joao Pinto, Portugal repeated the feat two years later on home soil , when Luis Figo, Rui Costa, Abel Xavier and Co announced their arrival on the international stage.
Attention to detail
The current U-20 side was actually coached by Carlos Diniz at the UEFA European U-19 Championship, but shortly after the tournament he vacated the position to take charge of the country's junior sides. It was then that Couceiro came on board, immediately implementing a strict work programme aimed at ensuring the squad arrive in Canada in optimum condition.
The first stage of the plan involved observing a large pool of talented youngsters right across the country. After monitoring their progress from the start of the season until the end of the year, the coaching staff were ready for stage two: the selection of a provisional squad of 26 players, whom they began working with in earnest during the first training camp in mid-January. The squad convened for a second time between 5 and 7 February, and plan further meetings for April, May and June.
As well as these get-togethers, the team plan to test themselves in a competitive environment by taking part in three tournaments before embarking for Canada. The first of these, the Madeira International Tournament, will run from 26 February to 2 March and include Slovakia, the Republic of Ireland and AF Madeira.
Then at the end of March, Portugal will attend another
tournament, at which Jordan and Japan have already confirmed they
will be taking part. However, their sternest test of all will come
at the Toulon Tournament (31 May-9 June), where they will face
opponents of the calibre of Germany, China, Côte d'Ivoire,
France, Ghana, the Netherlands and Japan.
The definitive squad for Canada 2007 is scheduled to be announced on 15 June, with the group setting off for North America on the 27th.
"We're still assembling the squad and places have yet to be decided. We have a lot of different options, as there's a group of between 30 and 40 players who could go to Canada," says Couceiro. "For now though, we have to keep working away quietly, and then take advantage of our time together and the tournaments to polish our game," the coach added.
Bruno Gama, 19, is one of the players to have captained the
current U-20 side. A fast and gifted left-footer who usually plays
in the withdrawn striker's role, Gama has already made an
impressive 68 international appearances. Barring some unforeseen
circumstances then, he should be one of the figureheads of the
Portuguese team in Canada.
In an interview published on the Portuguese Federation's website during the squad's last get-together, the teenager had this to say: "This is a very strong and tight-knit group. We're confident we can get good results and are going to continue working hard to perform to the best of our ability. My personal goal is to strive everyday to improve. If I'm going to be picked by the coaching staff, that's why I need to do. I'm determined to stay in the frame."
If Gama's fierce commitment and determination to improve are anything to go by, Portugal could very well be one of the revelations of Canada 2007.