Portugal have a secret weapon at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Turkey 2013, so secret in fact that not even the Portuguese fans seem to know who he is or where he came from.
There is a good reason for the mystery. Unlike his colleagues in the national team,19-year-old Aladje has never played for any of Portugal’s youth teams and has never set down roots in the country where his family hail from and where many of his friends live.
Born in Guinea-Bissau to Portuguese parents, the striker has blazed a different trail to team-mates Bruma, Edgar Ie and Agostinho Ca, all of whom were also born in the small West African state and left for Portugal at a young age.
Having spent the last two years playing for unheralded clubs in Italy, only now is Aladje earning recognition in the country he has chosen to represent. And judging by the three goals he has scored in the group phase at Turkey 2013, that recognition is well deserved.
“It’s a natural state of affairs for me: I’m an unknown because I’ve never played in Portugal,” the teenager told FIFA.com. “But now my friends are telling me that people are starting to talk about me there. I still need to keep on working hard but one day people will get to know me better.”
Though that objective might seem straightforward, Aladje’s route to recognition has been anything but. He was well into his teens when he was spotted on the pitches of the Academia Vitalaise in Bissau by an Italian businessman. Though a handful of Portuguese clubs had shown an interest in signing him, in 2011 the then 17-year-old made the journey to Italy to sign for Padova.
We haven’t been playing for that long together but we already understand each other better, which is good for the team.
Things did not work out for him there, prompting a move to Chievo Verona, who loaned him out to Aprilia of the Lega Pro Seconda Divisione, Italy’s fourth tier. It was all a big change in a short space of time for the teenager from Guinea-Bissau, and as he explained, the challenge of settling in a new country, learning a new language and trying to make his way in the game was a daunting one for someone so young.
“It was very tough because I didn’t speak the language and I didn’t understand what the coach asked of me,” commented Aladje, who said his Italian is improving thanks to some timely language lessons. “On top of all that I was missing my family and friends back in Guinea [Bissau]. I called them all the time and they told me to stay calm because the first year was always the toughest. Deep down, I knew it was an important time for me.”
Virtually alone in a foreign land, Aladje eventually began to find his feet. After enjoying a productive season with Aprilia, who are based near Rome, he earned a move to Sassuolo, who have just earned promotion to Serie A. In the meantime came the news he had been dreaming of, an invitation to a trial for promising young players in Portugal. With Edgar Borges installed as coach, the doors of the Portuguese U-20 side had suddenly opened for Aladje, who made the most of his opportunity, earning a place in the squad for the prestigious Toulon Tournament this year and scoring three goals there.
In almost the blink of an eye the tall centre-forward had made himself an indispensable part of the Portugal side. And with so many team-mates from his homeland alongside him, he quickly felt right at home. The partnership he has struck up with fellow countryman Bruma has been so productive in fact, you could be forgiven for thinking they are kindred spirits.
The reality is a little different. While the extrovert No11 is very much the joker in the Portugal side and a veteran when it comes to giving interviews, Aladje is far more reserved and softly spoken, presenting an image at odds with the rampaging play he has produced in Turkey.
“In that respect I’m the exact opposite to Bruma,” he said bashfully, before venturing an opinion on the connection he has forged with the Sporting livewire, which has yielded eight goals in the competition so far, the duo even linking up on occasion to provide assists for each other.
“I don’t have his skill,” said the modest front man. “He’s small, fast and can do some amazing things with the ball. We haven’t been playing for that long together but we already understand each other better, which is good for the team.”
It is also good for Aladje, who is making a name for himself in the Portugal shirt and moving ever closer to fulfilling his childhood dreams: “I want to play in Portugal one day. It would be great to be close to my family and friends again.
“I want to be known for what I do on the pitch too,” he added, seemingly unfazed by his sudden rise to prominence and revealing the hunger that has taken him this far already.