Danilo keeping the gate locked shut
© Getty Images

Boasting a safe pair of hands between the sticks, a tried-and-tested central defensive pairing and full-backs adept at denying space out on the flanks, it is easy to see why Portugal have defended so resolutely here at the FIFA U-20 World Cup. Yet another vital ingredient in keeper Mika’s four clean sheets in four games has been the physical presence of defensive midfielder Danilo and his insatiable appetite for protecting his backline.

Given that the Portuguese attackers have so far only sparked in fits and bursts, the team’s solidity in defence has gained even greater significance. Twice world champions at this level, Portugal are the only side in the last eight here at Colombia 2011 to have got this far without conceding, a feat only previously achieved by Brazil, in 2005, and Chile, in 2007, since the competition took on its current 24-team format.

“We’ve done a good job defensively, it’s true,” said Danilo, the Lusitanians’ midfield cão de guarda (guard dog), when speaking to FIFA.com. “We’re always very compact and try to avoid giving opposing forwards any space. It’s worked so far. Our discipline at the back has been our strong point and we need that to continue, because teams need a strong defence to be successful,” added the Parma player, who spent last season on loan at Greek side Aris Saloniki.

Measuring in at an imposing 1.88m, Danilo’s height certainly comes in handy in his role as a defensive-midfield shield, whatever the tactical variations used by coach Ilidio Vale. “To me, 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 doesn’t make much difference, I like both systems. What matters most to me is being there, right in the middle, where I can read the game, defend and even push forward in attack,” said the player, who proved he can find the net when grabbing two league goals for Aris and a brace against Mexico in a pre-Colombia 2011 friendly.

His power and all-round ability have also earned him the respect of his fellow midfielders. “It’s good to play alongside him,” said Pele who, though he plays a slightly more advanced role, shares centre-of-the-park duties with Portugal’s No15. “We’ve got a good understanding and we cover each other defensively and when one of us pushes forward. When we’ve not got the ball we always try to pressure the opposing midfielders, win back possession as much as possible and feed our attackers,” he added.

The pair’s fruitful mutual understanding has its roots in their shared heritage, with both players born in the former Portuguese colony of Guinea-Bissau. “We do share a bond because of that, we’re good friends,” said Danilo, though he does not remember much about the land of his birth. “I was only five when we moved to Portugal, where my mum trained as a nurse, and we ended up staying. I never got to play football over there.”

If we approach the match the same way we did our last game it could be fatal.
Danilo, Portugal midfielder.

Danilo had barely learned to walk before he started kicking a ball about in his hometown of Mansoa, in the west African nation, but it was in his adopted country of Portugal that he began hinting at a future in the game, when catching the eye amongst his peers in the village of Mem Martins near Sintra, just outside Lisbon.

Also a highly gifted athlete, the young Danilo opted to focus on football, a decision which saw capital giants Benfica show an interest before he had even turned ten. Yet it was not until 2008 that he was brought into Os Encarnados’ youth ranks, only to end up signing for Parma and cementing his place in the Portuguese national youth set-up.

As cool and collected off the field as he is determined on it, Danilo is not afraid to say his piece when required. And in the midfield enforcer’s view, Portugal cannot afford a repeat of their performance against Guatemala on 9 August in Cali, when the players left the Estadio Pascual Guerrero looking visibly dejected despite a 1-0 win. “We just didn’t play well,” he explained. “We fell way below the standards we set in our previous two or three games.”

Coach Vale chose to publicly lament his players’ attitude following the Round of 16 meeting, and given their lacklustre display, particularly after the interval, Danilo felt he and his team-mates need to take that criticism on the chin.

“We really let our heads drop and that’s why the coach got angry with us,” he said. “It wasn’t about the mistakes we made, it was our attitude. They (Guatemala) deserve credit because they really attacked us, but we should have been ready and we can’t let ourselves get put through the mill like that.”

A Selecção das Quinas will indeed have to be much more switched on come Saturday 13 August’s quarter-final against Argentina, the six-time FIFA U-20 World Cup champions. “We need to work on getting our heads right,” said Danilo as the conversation concluded. “If we approach the match the same way we did our last game it could be fatal.”