Ask any football fan to list Portugal’s contribution to the global game and they will no doubt mention players of the calibre of Eusebio and Cristiano Ronaldo, the hugely successful Jose Mourinho and the trophy-laden triumvirate of Porto, Benfica and Sporting Lisbon.
What some may not know, however, is that Portugal is also home to one of the most prestigious and longest-running international events on the women’s calendar, the Algarve Cup.
The 18th edition of the week-long invitational tournament, staged on the country’s sun-kissed south coast, comes to a conclusion on Wednesday. And on the guest list are four of the teams expected to challenge for honours at the upcoming FIFA Women’s World Cup Germany 2011™: USA, Norway, Sweden and Japan.
Known in the women’s game as the Mundialito or mini-World Cup, the competition came about when, in June 1993, the Swedish Football Association suggested to its Portuguese counterpart that it host an international tournament.
The idea was well received. Following much hard work and the approval of the new competition’s rules by the then FIFA Secretary General Joseph S. Blatter, the inaugural Algarve Cup was held in March 1994, with six teams taking part: USA, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland and the host nation.
The following year, the field was increased to eight and in 2002 it became a 12-team competition comprising a group stage with three four-team sections. Three years later FIFA lent their support to the competition by supplying professional referees.
“It’s an essential competition for us for three good reasons,” Sebastiao Lobo, the director of the Algarve Cup, told FIFA.com. “It helps us raise the profile of women’s football, it gives our women footballers a valuable opportunity to compete against the best teams in the world, and it also provides them with an incentive to keep on improving. We are well aware that we’re not good enough to qualify for international competitions on a regular basis and this is the best opportunity our women have to compete against the world’s top sides.”
As co-sponsors of the initiative that led to the creation of the tournament, the Scandinavian trio of Norway, Sweden and Denmark invite five other teams to make up groups A and B, with hosts Portugal selecting their three opponents in Group C. The winners of the first two groups then contest the final, with the other sides fighting it out for the lower placings.
Lobo explained the benefits of the competition format: “It allows teams to take on opponents of a similar level, and it gives sides of lesser ability a real opportunity to develop their game. In the future we hope to have all three groups competing at the same level, though.”
As Portugal’s national team coach Monica Jorge told FIFA.com, the hosts now have the incentive of one day rubbing shoulders with the world’s best: “Our goal is to earn a place in Group A or B in the near future. Women’s football has grown here over the last four years, although we still need to take that step forward in terms of quality. We’ve got some catching up to do because we started later. We were hampered by the Latin mindset to start with, but people now see us in a different light and we’ve really improved our image.
“We haven’t lost a single game this season and that’s helped us become mentally tougher, lift the players’ confidence and attract the attention of the fans, who are starting to believe in us,” she continued, before explaining the reasons behind that improvement. “Some of the team are also playing abroad now and they’re passing on their experience to the rest of the side. The challenge we face now is to build a better base, get more people playing the game, and strengthen our national competitions.”
Having coached the national side for the last ten years, Jorge believes the Algarve Cup is a vital component in Portugal’s ongoing development: “Watching the world’s best players in action helps us improve. This is our ‘World Cup’ and we’ve done well this year with a very young team. We haven’t lost a game in the group, although it was frustrating to see Wales finish above us even though we beat them. But that’s football.”
The benevolent climate of southern Portugal and its welcoming ambiance also make the Algarve Cup popular with competing sides. “The teams like it,” said Lobo.
“The weather’s usually very nice at this time of year and visiting teams also get a warm welcome from the local people. What’s more, there aren’t that many places where you’ll find so many stadiums with natural grass within easy reach of each other. The 24 games are all played on grass at nine different grounds that are no more than 90 kilometres apart.”
“The facilities here are excellent and so is the organisation, in every respect,” concurred Sigurour Eyjolfsson, coach of the Iceland team, who meet USA in Wednesday’s final.
Although the international calendar is far more congested than it was when the Algarve Cup came into being, its status as a blue riband event is assured.
“We want the tournament to go on and on,” concluded Lobo. “We’re trying to innovate every year and create content to promote the event and raise its profile further. The competition celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2013 and we want it to be a very special occasion. We’re working on a lot of projects right now, including an exhibition, talks on development and coaching, and a book on these first 20 years of the Algarve Cup.”