After missing out on the last two FIFA U-20 World Cup finals,
Portugal's young stars, led by inspirational skipper Bruno
Gama, are devoting all their energies to making a grand return to
the world stage at Canada 2007 .
"Qualifying for the World Cup gave us a huge amount of satisfaction," Gama tells FIFA.com. "That was our main objective at the European Championship and the team is delighted to have achieved it."
Normally found in the withdrawn striker's role, Gama is currently turning out for Sporting Braga in the Portuguese BWINLIGA and was one of the star performers of the Portugal side that went unbeaten at last July's UEFA U-19 European Championship in Poland . While three consecutive draws may not have been enough to see his side into the semi-finals, they at least allowed Portugal to claim the final European ticket to Canada.
Gama's goal tally for the competition was three, the first of them a magnificently executed free-kick to secure a 2-2 draw against Scotland. In the following two games, a 4-4 thriller with Turkey and a tense 1-1 draw with Spain, he showed his nerve to slot home a brace of ultimately crucial penalty kicks.
Gama is at pains to play down his importance to his side, though, preferring instead to deflect the credit to his team-mates. "I think we're a quality side and there's a great togetherness. We're also a strong unit and I think that's what's helped us get results."
The fact that several squad members are cutting their teeth in the Portuguese top flight is another factor identified by Gama as central to the team's progress. "It's very important because the players can pick up a lot more experience, meaning they have a lot more to give the national side," he says.
The impish cheek and authority he displays on the pitch give way to a shy, slightly reserved manner off it. Mention the word football to Gama, however, and his eyes light up with passion, particularly when the subject turns to Canada and his hopes for the tournament.
"We'd love to repeat what Figo's generation achieved," he smiles before adding, "but our main goal is to get through to the last 16," a clear sign that coach Jose Couceiro's repeated warnings against getting carried away have been taken on board by his captain.
The obstacles lying between the Portuguese and a place in the knockout stages are New Zealand , Mexico and Gambia, but Gama is confident they can rise to the occasion. "I think we can get through to the next round. Then it's just a question of taking each game as it comes."
The 19-year-old, who lists Cristiano Ronaldo and Ronaldinho as his main inspirations, is already well-acquainted with international success, having formed part of the side that stormed to victory at the UEFA U-17 European Championship in 2003. Impressed by the youngster's rapid rise to prominence, FC Porto decided to part with €750,000 to lure him away from his childhood club Sporting Braga. Then, on the back of his superb performances at last summer's UEFA U-19 European Championship, the Portuguese giants decided to send him back to Braga on loan so he could gain valuable experience in the top tier and the UEFA Cup.
"I started playing at Braga when I was ten and I've still got another year to go here. The aim this season is to finish fourth in the league and reach the Portuguese Cup Final. On a personal level, I'm hoping to go back to Porto and play in the Champions League and, of course, to break into the national team."
Recent months have seen coach Couceiro continue with his detailed preparations for the big event in July. The latest of the many training camps and competitions set up to gauge Portuguese progress was last month's four-team Campos Verdes International Tournament, held on home soil in Alentejo.
Opponents Cape Verde, Jordan and Japan were all powerless to prevent the hosts from strolling to three relatively straightforward victories. After kicking off with a 2-0 win over the Africans, the Portuguese recorded comfortable 3-0 defeats over the Jordanians and the Japanese, both of whom will also be in Canada.
"We scored eight goals and were never under pressure," commented Couceiro afterwards. "We can be satisfied with that. We've played 12 games now and we've only let in one goal. The team looked extremely solid at the back, but we'll be facing much stronger sides at the World Cup and we have to keep on working hard."