Once upon a time, he was the Golden Ball of a Golden Generation. Nowadays, it is his job to seek out and polish his country’s most precious gems, to ensure a glittering future for the national team.
It was 25 years ago that Portuguese midfielder Emilio Peixe was named the adidas Golden Ball winner at the FIFA World Youth Championship Portugal 1991, where the hosts successfully defended the title they had won in Saudi Arabia two years previously.
Today, Peixe is in charge of a new crop of Portuguese youngsters, who will represent their country at that tournament's current incarnation, the FIFA U-20 World Cup, to be held in Korea Republic between 20 May and 11 June 2017.
“The Golden Ball is kept at my mother’s house,” he explained with a smile to FIFA.com. “It’s the best place for it!” The former defensive midfielder is one of the few footballers to have played for each of Portugal’s three biggest club sides: Benfica, Porto and Sporting. “I don’t like talking about my past,” he acknowledged. “I’m very proud of everything I did as a footballer. What I achieved on the pitch is very important, but it’s the personal experiences and adventures that my career has brought me which I treasure the most.”
Since 2008, when he first joined the Portuguese Football Federation, Peixe has taken charge of a succession of youth teams. “The role of the coach is much more complete and rewarding than that of the player,” the 43 year-old opined. “Having been a footballer brings value to the role because you understand certain situations better, which enables you to anticipate things, but that in itself is not enough. You have to study, to prepare, to keep yourself up to speed. It’s a job where you’re continuously learning, in which you’ve got to be very thorough and capable of getting your message across. Being a coach fills me with passion.”
Peixe brings this passion to one of the main tasks that his position entails: training. “It is our mission to prepare the boys in the best way possible, so that they progress to the senior national team,” he explained. “It’s important to spot the talent as early as possible and, from there, improve the level of quality and put them on the path to reaching the senior team.”
With this in mind, Peixe could not have felt prouder when he saw one of ‘his boys’, Renato Sanches, crowned a European champion at France 2016. “Two of our players, Ruben Neves and Renato, have already won international caps,” he enthused. “As a coach, it’s a privilege to see such young players enjoy success.” Furthermore, a few months ago, Renato completed a much-publicised transfer to Bayern Munich. “It’s a way of reinforcing our message,” he explained. “We use it to make the others see what’s possible, but only with persistent work and effort, because this is a tough and demanding profession. For them, seeing team-mates like Renato succeed serves as an extra motivation. They realise what is possible.”
Learning from the past, building for the future Ever since Portugal secured their place at the forthcoming World Cup back in July, Peixe has been working towards the tournament. “We’re really pleased to be in such a great competition, and one that will be a unique opportunity for the players,” he said. As for the footballing identity of his team, he explained: “This team boasts many and diverse profiles of footballers. So I’m not looking to rigidly define the team’s style of play, but rather develop a style that can change and adapt. We place a lot of emphasis on collective organisation, on the ball – and from those foundations our individual quality can flourish.”
As a veteran of Portugal 1991, Peixe is very clear as to the message that he wants to pass on to his players: “For them to enjoy themselves!” he exclaimed, without hesitation. “To make the most of this opportunity. Not to hold anything back, and to give a good image of the Portuguese footballer.”
When it comes to the tournament, the coaching staff are not setting themselves any limits, high or low. “The main target – qualification – has been achieved. Obviously, nobody goes to a tournament to lose. We’re going with the great responsibility that comes with representing Portugal at the highest level. Our attitude will be to enjoy it, make the most of the opportunity and work together to win all the games we can.”
There is no pressure, then. But neither does Peixe wish to play down the impact that this tournament can have, both individually and collectively. As an example, today’s team need only consider that title-winning group from 25 years ago, led by Carlos Queiroz and featuring the hitherto unheralded talents of Luis Figo, Rui Costa and Abel Xavier. “That title marked an important turning point in the mentality of Portuguese football. The organisation of grassroots football improved, because it was obvious that the talent was there and that we had to realise our potential. From that moment, Portuguese football has never been the same again. We managed to climb a few rungs higher up the ladder, to make ourselves competitive and to stand up to stronger teams.”
Peixe is a self-professed admirer of the work of Queiroz, who is currently at the helm of an Iran side fighting for qualification to the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™. “I want to learn from the best, and he is right up there,” enthused Peixe. “He’s a coach who is always one step ahead. He’s an example, as both a person and as a professional.”
The pupil now finds himself standing in his master’s shoes. Only time will tell whether the Golden Ball winner of the Golden Generation will manage to truly follow in his footsteps and, in doing so, bring the success of Portuguese football full circle.