What do João Félix, Renato Sanches, Bernardo Silva, Rúben Dias, João Cancelo, and Ederson all have in common?
Well, they’re all elite football players – but they’ve also all trod the long path through the world-renowned talent factory commonly referred to as S.L. Benfica. And yet, they only represent the last and most polished links of a long chain that has an impressive scouting network at its onset, and youth coaches informed by the same values and philosophy as its central part.
At the start of the chain, there’s people like Hugo Pinheiro – Scouting Coordinator between the U16 and the B team. “We have two departments: our department and the senior one,” he explained. “For us, it’s important to sign the players as soon as they play well. We are based in Lisbon, meaning the surrounding area is the most important one. A kid playing in Lisbon is different from one playing in the North, as the latter cannot come to our academy. We want to pick them as soon as they start to play well.”
Of course, in order to bring the best youngsters to Benfica, Pinheiro and his colleagues have to constantly battle with the other two powerhouses of Portuguese football: Porto and Sporting Lisbon. “It’s important to know our competitors. Here in Lisbon, Sporting are especially aggressive when it comes to sign players from a very young age, so we need to adjust our ideas to suit this contest. First of all, we try and watch the player before our rivals. We have a lot of scouts around. If we see a good player and we believe Sporting and Porto are interested, we offer him a trial with our team in the middle of the following week. These are the players Benfica need to scout in an ‘aggressive’ way. Otherwise, one of our scouts would simply watch the player and report that we urgently need to keep an eye on him.”
Simply from observing the scouts, it’s possible to see how everyone at Benfica works with a very clear goal in mind; Pinheiro’s eloquent reply, when asked about whether they look for players to fit into a certain team, also shows the same. “Obviously, we try to send to the first team the best the youth sector can provide. We don’t have ‘teams’ here, we have players. It’s not ‘teams’ we put into the first team, it’s players. We don’t need to develop ‘teams’, we need to develop players.”
Once they join Benfica, young players pass through the wise hands of several professionals, who, following the club’s philosophy, do their best to turn as many of them as possible into refined products to replenish the first team – and, eventually, other European top teams. These professionals include the likes of Filipe Coelho, head coach of the U17s, and Jorge Maciel, former Benfica U23 head coach, who now holds a technical role with Lille’s first team.
“Benfica is about everybody,” mused Maciel. “It’s like this from the beginning, from childhood, all the way to the highest level, namely the senior team. Sometimes an opportunity presents itself, because we lose a player who got injured and so on; things happen randomly, and it’s something we can’t control. What we can control is the way we see things, and that’s what’s most important. We all try to be parts of the same big thing, and everybody is connected to and focused on our philosophy.”
Maciel then went on to highlight the priorities of the youth sector: “It’s important that everybody values the same things in the same way. It doesn’t matter if we play with a 4-4-2, a 4- 3-3 or yet another kind of formation. Even if some formations more than others can facilitate certain kinds of situations, we mostly care about mentality, the club’s culture, the dynamic of the players and the way they see things.”
Listening to Coelho, meanwhile, shines a light on the actual process that young players are guided through in order to get the best out of themselves. “The first cycle lasts 12 weeks, more or less, then we give the player a card with his characteristics and an indication on where we think he should improve. In this way, he knows exactly what we’ll be aiming at for the next 12 weeks and he can focus on that. Then we assess him and formulate new goals for the following three months. We keep changing his card every three months while monitoring every step of his path.”
This process often includes swaps of players among the club’s various teams: “Let me give you an example of what a typical week with the U17s looks like. We train on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, and we normally play on Sunday. On Tuesday and Thursday, six or seven players are sent to the U19, while six or seven players from the U16 join us. It’s about offering them a more competitive environment. We care about giving our elite players an open path to professionalism.”
However, never is the search for outstanding players carried on at the expense of other aspects of these boys’ personal development. As Coelho noted: “When they come to the campus, they have all kind of facilities at their disposal, but we also keep a strong relation with the school. It’s very important, and Benfica places great emphasis on education. Even when the boys start to get a sense of professionalism here, they can’t forget about the school.”
The U17 head coach then described what a day in the life of one of his players looks like: “Already at U16 level, the kids are like completely professional players on Tuesday and Thursday, because they don’t have to go to school. They start off at the gym, where they follow an individual programme. After that, they have lunch together, before going back to the gym for another session. Then they can meet up in our auditorium, or have individual video sessions. Lastly, they grab a snack and train all together.”
Another aspect Benfica never fail to take into account is the psychological one, rightfully regarded as a crucial part of a boy’s coming of age. “It’s particularly important with players who skip steps,” reflected Coelho. “At times, we have elite players who need to stay where they are. Sometimes, in order to grow, a footballer needs to understand that the work he’s putting in is not enough. If he perceives that the club is betting on him, he might slow down. When this happens, coaches have to take decisions. We make him stay where he is, so that he can refresh his mind and realize he needs to work hard again if he wants to go on. Happens, it’s normal.”
“The players’ expectations now are higher than they were five years ago. Now, they can see that the door is completely open for them, and when someone gets the opportunity to go through that door, those who stay behind might start to wonder why. It’s more difficult now to manage expectations. Youth coaches should always be aware of this and continuously keep their players focused on work, not on whom they’re training with.”
This attention for the boys’ psychology even takes into account the repercussions a setback in the development process may have on a young player’s mind. This often goes hand-in-hand with the hope for both parties to cross paths again, as illustrated by Coelho: “At the end of the season, we hold a meeting with the player, his parents and his agent. We have protocols in place with a lot of teams surrounding Lisbon and all over the country. When a player ends his cycle at Benfica, we make sure to keep an eye on him. We even support them through our psychological department. Many times I found myself telling the players that this path is not a straight line. Sometimes they have to go away, get plenty of playing time with another team, maybe even turn into their best player, and perhaps our doors will open again.”
Such a successful and well-functioning system, hosted by the state-of-the-art facilities of the Caixa Futebol Campus, is what ultimately brought about the rise of teenage sensation João Félix. “We always believed in him,” recalled Pinheiro. “But the first team is a whole other story. We never know how will a player react. We only understand that they’re ready when we see them play; that provides an answer to all our questions. We are lucky enough to have a manager who believes in the youth.”
His path might be soon followed by Guinea-Bissau-born Portuguese winger Umaro Embaló: “He is one of those we have high expectations on. He’s an U19 but plays for the B team, and this is very good for him. We don’t know how far can he go. We’re waiting to put him into the first team, he’s one of our finest players.”
Pinheiro also provided some insights on one of the club’s best generations, while also highlighting the far-sightedness that lies at the basis of the whole Benfica system: “A few years back, we had Ferro, Rúben Dias, Renato Sanches, Diogo Gonçalves, João Carvalho, Pedro Amaral. We had a fantastic group and expectations were high. When they were at U19 level we took the decision to move all of them into the B team. Our only goal is to make kids ready for the first team. That year, we weren’t sure the B team would have stayed up. We didn’t win many games because the whole group was made up of U19s, and we didn’t win the U19 league because most of the players were in the reserve team. And yet, we achieved our goal, because Renato was playing with the first team by the end of the season.”
Long-term goals over short-term ones, unity of purpose and attention for every small detail of a kid’s development: this is what makes Benfica’s one of the world’s most successful youth sectors. There’s little doubt that we’ll all still be rubbing our eyes at the stars they produce for many, many years to come.