For Porto’s U-19 side, 2011 will live long in the memory. Just days after winning the Portuguese Championship in their age category, Os Dragões headed to Switzerland to take part in the Blue Stars/FIFA Youth Cup – and duly won the trophy. Now in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, coach Rui Gomes reminisces about last year’s success and looks ahead to the challenges awaiting his Porto team this year.
FIFA.com: What are your memories of the Blue Stars/FIFA Youth Cup 2011?
Rui Gomes: I’ve the best memories of that, and not only because we won, but also because it was one of best organised and finest tournaments we’d ever played in. Right from the start, we got the impression that it was a very well-planned competition – things like the way we were received, the way things ran like clockwork and the facilities and conditions there. It’s a top-quality event, and winning it right after becoming Portuguese champions was the icing on the cake.
What do you think of the tournament’s format, with multiple games across two days?
The games are short but the tournament is very intense. On the first afternoon alone we have three fixtures on pitches of varying dimensions against teams with distinct styles. This requires you to adapt very quickly, but the format seems very good to me.
How important are these end-of-season youth tournaments?
They can serve several purposes. For one they can be the culmination of a season’s effort, enabling a group of players who have worked all year to end the campaign with an intense competition, albeit one with less emotional pressure. In addition, they can also help you prepare for the following season and let you blood some of the U-18 players already in the squad.
Having been drawn with FC Zurich, Zenit St. Petersburg, BSC Young Boys and Besiktas this year, what’s your team’s objective?
It’s going to be extremely tough. In last year’s final we defeated Zurich, who were a very strong team and already competing in the Swiss second division. This time around we open our campaign against them, so if the other teams are of a similar standard, then it’s sure to be very, very hard tournament. It’s difficult to give you a precise goal because, with this format, anything is possible right until the end. Last year, for example, we only secured our place in the final in the last minute of our final [group] game.
Of last year’s winning team, several are now playing professionally, some even in the Portuguese league. Do you foresee a similar future for some of this team?
Without a doubt. The top players in our squad are set for great careers, like those some of last year’s team have already embarked on. Essentially, what validates our work is the feeling that we’re helping develop these players. Our goal is to open the doors to professional football for them.
How would you assess the progress of Portuguese youth football?
In my opinion, it has come on immensely. There are ten or 20 very good clubs in Portugal in terms of youth development, and this is reflected in the [country’s] age-category sides. It’s true that many of the players that come through the youth academies are not immediately ready to play at the level demanded by Portugal’s leading sides. However, major achievements, like finishing as runners-up at the FIFA U-20 World Cup [in 2011], help enormously.