Unbeaten throughout the tournament, Argentina could be forgiven for harbouring regret as they took their leave of the FIFA U-20 World Cup Colombia 2011. Their misfortune was to come up against a similarly undefeated Portugal side in the quarter-finals, the Portuguese prevailing on penalties after a goalless draw, the fifth time in five games in Colombia that they had kept a clean sheet.
Part of the reason for that immaculate defensive record, one that now stretches back 480 minutes, is the peerless form of captain and central defender Nuno Reis, who spoke to FIFA.com after helping his side set up a semi-final date with France.
“We stick together as a team and we’re a solid unit with a real will to win,” he said. “We got the better of Argentina thanks to our team spirit and the friendship between us, and we never gave up.”
That togetherness was put to the test when the Portuguese trailed La Albiceleste 3-1 in the penalty shoot-out. Leading by example, the skipper took and converted his side’s first penalty and then ran all the way from the centre circle to console team-mates Danilo and Roderick when they missed Portugal’s next two kicks.
“It’s in situations like that that a captain has to do his job,” said the Swiss-born Reis. “I wanted to make sure that my team-mates didn’t get down when they missed their penalties. I had to tell them that it wasn’t over, that there might be a time to cry later on but that it hadn’t arrived yet.”
Getting the job done
Reis was proved right. No sooner had Argentina put one foot in the semi-finals than they faltered, Portugal overhauling them in the shoot-out thanks in no small part to Mika’s heroics between the posts.
Once again, it was the skipper who inspired his keeper to new heights: “Before the shoot-out I told him that we would do our job as penalty-takers and that I had every confidence he would do his. I didn’t want to think that we’d gone all that way for nothing, and I was still full of hope.”
While fortune smiled on Portugal on Saturday, the Cercle Brugge defender is anxious not to have to go through all that anguish again, which almost certainly means they will have to improve their scoring record. Though yet to concede a goal at Colombia 2011, the fact remains that they have only scored three times in their five games, one of those goals coming from the penalty spot.
“We are playing very well but we always have the same problem, and that’s our inability to score,” said Reis, who learned his trade in the youth ranks at Sporting Lisbon. “Sooner or later we’re going to pay for that and we have to prevent it from happening in matches that we’re capable of winning. We need to work hard to score more, but without losing our solidity at the back. The whole team wants to improve in attack, though, not just the forwards.”
Sticking to the task
Reis certainly did his bit against Argentina. Portugal’s four best chances, all of which went begging, came from his precise long balls, suggesting a tactic that had been hatched on the training ground.
“You have to use your head on the pitch, and while you watch the opposition and then go out and practice a few things in training, there are some things that just come instinctively, depending on how the game’s going,” he explained. “I saw the Argentinian central defenders pushing up and I tried to anticipate our midfielders and get the ball to them.”
Though Portugal’s finishing was not up to scratch, their perseverance paid dividends. “We honestly didn’t have any goals in terms of qualifying but we knew that if we played to the best of our ability we would be tough to beat,” added Reis. “We didn’t have any other objective than to play good football.
“We haven’t reached perfection yet, but we’ve achieved our initial target. Obviously when you get to the semi-finals you start focusing on nothing else but the title. It’s going to be tough but we can do it. We can be proud of ourselves, just as I am to be captain of this team.”
And his team-mates are no doubt proud to be led by the cultured centre-half, a feeling that will only intensify should he lift the trophy on their behalf on Sunday.