Mika was Portugal’s hero of the hour when they saw off Argentina in the quarter-finals of the FIFA U-20 World Cup, stopping two penalties in an especially tense shoot-out to set up a semi-final with France. Though playing less of a hand in the 2-0 defeat of Les Bleus, which took the Portuguese into their first final in the competition in 20 years, he nevertheless entered the tournament record books.
In athletically palming away Clement Grenier’s dangerous free-kick with 13 minutes on the clock, Mika overtook the record set by Chile custodian Cristopher Toselli at Canada 2007, having by that stage gone 493 minutes without conceding a goal in the competition. By the end of the day he had extended that mark to 570 minutes, spanning all six of his side’s matches at Colombia 2011.
Unaccustomed as he is to being the centre of attention, the Benfica goalkeeper was his usual modest self in conversation with FIFA.com shortly after their semi-final win at the Estadio Anastasio Girardot in Medellin. That said, there was no disguising his elation at surpassing Toselli’s achievement.
“Yes, it’s a historic feat and a personal objective of mine,” he said. “Reaching the final without conceding a goal is very important and it’s given me even more confidence. I hope I can carry on in the same vein.”
I’m delighted to have broken the record, but it’s really down to the whole team. We’re doing well in defence because we’re a very tightly knit squad, and we’re friends off the pitch too.
As strange as it may seem for anyone who has seen Mika pull off save after save in Colombia and thwart six different teams in the process, he was not even part of coach Ilidio Vale’s plans 12 months ago. It was not until well after the UEFA European U-19 Championship, at the end of 2010 to be precise, that he played his first games for the team. A solid performer in training and the warm-up matches, he was given his first major test at the Toulon Tournament in June, conceding two goals in three games.
“The confidence that the coach has shown in me has been very important,” he said. “I haven’t been in the starting line-up for very long. He gave me the chance, I took it, and I think I’ve been playing well. I always try to do my best to help the team out.”
As a relative new boy, Mika is reluctant to take the plaudits in a team where many of his colleagues have spent a long time playing together, preferring instead to heap praise on them: “We’ve done well in attack and defence. We’ve been effective in every department and that’s played a big part in us not conceding any goals.
“I’m delighted to have broken the record, but it’s really down to the whole team. We’re doing well in defence because we’re a very tightly knit squad, and we’re friends off the pitch too. You can see that when we play because we’re always helping each other out.”
Born in Switzerland, where he lived until the age of eight, Mika goes about his work with a minimum of fuss and likes to keep his thoughts and emotions to himself, though even he is excited by the possibility of Portugal landing their third world title in the category when they face Brazil in Bogota on Saturday. The Portuguese last won the competition 20 years ago, when the golden generation led by Luis Figo, Rui Costa and Joao Pinto overcame the Brazilians on home soil.
“We have our dreams and our belief is that we can win the final, even against a team of the stature of Brazil,” he said. “We haven’t been talking about being the champions up to now, but we are obviously very proud at having got this far. If we can stay calm and keep our feet on the ground, we might just be able to take this last step.”
And as anxious as he is not to get carried away by Portugal’s progress, Mika is well aware of just how big an impact their Colombian exploits could have back home. “A title would mean so much to our people and to Portuguese football,” he acknowledged. “It would raise the profile of our generation and the players coming up behind us. We’ve got a lot of talent and maybe we just need to make a little more of it.”
As Mika has shown at Colombia 2011, that is one thing he cannot be accused of failing to do.