While Portugal’s defence has impressed so far at the FIFA U-20 World Cup New Zealand 2015, with just one goal conceded in three games, there is no doubt it is their attacking exuberance that has really caught the eye – as well as firmly placing them among the title favourites. Among the key weapons in coach Helio Sousa’s armoury has been the deadly partnership between two starlets from the Porto youth ranks: Ivo Rodrigues and Andre Silva.
“They’re both very important players for us,” said Sousa and his team’s stats bear that out. The Lusitanians, who will tackle hosts New Zealand in the Round of 16 in Hamilton, finished the first phase as the tournament’s second top scorers with ten goals – four going to Silva and two to Rodrigues. The former, a technically adept centre-forward with a knack for losing his marker, and the latter, a wide player who usually plays on the left flank but can also cause havoc on the right, tend to look for each other as their first option and – much to their opponents’ chagrin – generally succeed.
“We’ve known each other for several years now,” Silva, 19, told FIFA.com. “We’ve scored and created quite a few goals together. Sometimes we don’t even need to speak, things just come about instinctively because we’ve been playing together a long time and we’ve a very good understanding.”
The pair first met at 14 in a team that featured many of the best youngsters in the District of Porto, prior to working their way up *Os Dragões’ *youth system, though the time spent playing together is not the only explanation for their on-pitch chemistry. “He’s a very committed and ambitious player, with a lot of ability,” said 20-year-old Rodrigues, on his team-mate. “He’s got a real thirst for goals which, paired with my skill and unpredictability, contributes to our success.”
Admirers of both Ronaldos
Providing a tasty compliment to the duo’s undoubted spark is the clever movement and interplay of Portugal as a whole, particularly the likes of winger Gelson Martins – with whom Rodrigues often switches flanks, creative midfielder Rony Lopes and another wide-man, Nuno Santos, who has had a dramatic effect as an impact substitute so far.
In the view of 19-year-old Santos, a fervent admirer of ex-Brazil superstar Ronaldo, to the point of “watching videos of him to try and do some of the great things he did when he was playing”, it is team spirit and discipline that enables Portugal’s technical ability to shine.
“When we lose the ball we organise ourselves very well and are very strong at getting back to win it again,” said Santos, on the strengths of the 2014 UEFA European Under-19 Championship runners-up. “Then, when we’ve got it back, we’re even more energetic when it comes to attacking. We never stop pushing forward, we always want more and that’s what we aim to do for the whole 90 minutes.”
Rodrigues, more of a fan of another Ronaldo, Cristiano – thanks to his “hard work and the fact he never gives up” – feels that this Portugal team “are a very down-to-earth side. Over and above any qualities we might have, we never give anything up as impossible.”
Yet for all Silva and Rodrigues’ complimentary characteristics out on the field, it is not always the case away from it. “We’re very different people,” said Rodrigues, with the happy-go-lucky Silva taking things that touch further: “He’s a bit more serious, I think I’m more fun,” said the striker, barely containing his mirth. “What’s more, I’m always beating him on the PlayStation. Of every ten games we play I win eight and it makes him cry!”
“That’s not true,” Rodrigues fired back, well used to the No9’s sense of humour. “We played a tournament the other day between all of us and I won it, having knocked him out in the Round of 16. He’s a big fibber, he’s rubbish on the PlayStation,” added the wide man, whose battles with his club-mate on EA SPORTS™ FIFA 15 were restricted last term due to his loan spell with Vitoria Guimaraes.
Seriousness returns to proceedings, however, as the conversation concluded, the pair clearly united in their desire to drive Portugal to ever greater heights at New Zealand 2015. “We don’t see ourselves as the biggest favourites,” said Silva, before taking his leave. “That said, I believe in our quality. We’re a very strong team."