Portugal’s New Golden Generation

A Seleção, Portugal’s national team, is currently enjoying the best period in its 99-year history. Fernando Santos’ men are the current European champions, UEFA Nations League champions and have one of the best squads in world football both in terms of quality and depth. However, even after all of the glory and ecstasy of the previous four years, there is a strong feeling in Portugal and beyond that for the Seleção, the best is still yet to come. Just beneath the surface of the current senior side, there is a new golden generation brewing. Aaron Barton looks closely at this crop of gifted footballers who are being tipped to continue Portugal’s legacy.

The term golden generation or geração do ouro, was originally coined by the Portuguese media to describe the crop of Portuguese players who won both the 1989 and 1991 FIFA Youth World Championships. This talented group of footballers included the likes of Luís Figo, Manuel Rui Costa, João Pinto and Jorge Costa. Many of the players from this illustrious squad would go on to play for the senior Seleção side at Euro 2000, the competition that was a real turning point for the Portuguese national team, both in terms of performance and in terms of how the rest of the world perceived this little country on the Iberian peninsula.

Portugal celebrate their triumph at the 1989 FIFA Youth Championships (Photo: FIFA)

Over the next few years, Portugal would go close to capturing their first piece of silverware. Their efforts included reaching the final of UEFA Euro 2004 on home-soil before losing to minnows Greece, reaching the semi-final of the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany and the quarter-final of Euro 2008 two years later, before being eliminated by Germany. By the year 2010, the core of this golden generation had gone, the likes of Luís Figo, Nuno Gomes and Rui Costa had either bidden farewell to the international stage or fallen out of favour.

It is now a decade on from Euro 2000 and the emergence of the golden generation and a lot has happened in these last ten years. Fernando Santos’ unlikely lads combined hard-work and talent to pull off a shock in 2016, inflicting upon France the same fate Greece has inflicted upon them, by beating Les Bleus on their home soil in the final. The conquest of the inaugural UEFA Nations League came next, where Portugal played football that was in some ways reminiscent of that great Euro 2000 side. Santos’ men moved the ball with speed, precision and purpose, playing beautiful attacking football and defending stoutly when necessary. However, it is not just the senior Seleção side that has been winning titles and making headlines.

The Emergence of A New Golden Generation

In May 2016, whilst Portugal’s players finished off their respective domestic seasons and prepared for their assault on the UEFA European Championships two months later, Portugal’s under 17 side were arriving in Azerbaijan for the UEFA Under 17 European Championships. The side, led by none other than Hélio Sousa (the former midfielder was part of the original golden generation) won their Elite qualifying group, winning all three matches, scoring seven goals and conceding just two. This crop of players blew their opponents away the moment the competition started. They breezed through the group stages as winners, before beating Austria 5-0 in the quarter-final, Holland 2-0 in the semi-final before defeating Iberian rivals Spain on penalties to lift the trophy. Shortly after the final, UEFA released their Squad of the Tournament, comprised of the brightest and best performers from the competition. Out of the 18 players selected, Portugal had nine representatives; Diogo Costa, Rúben Vinagre, Diogo Dalot, Diogo Leite, Florentino Luís, Gedson Fernandes, Domingos Quina, Jota and José Gomes. 

Embed from Getty Images

Two years later and now competing at Under 19 level, this squad of players, plus a couple of new faces including the likes of Francisco Trincão and Thierry Correia, travelled to Finland for the UEFA U19 European Championships. It was here that Portugal became U19 European champions for the first time in their history, beating Italy in the final and in the process furthered the comparisons between themselves and the original golden generation by also winning two titles in three years (1989 & 1991/2016 & 2018).

The year is 2020 and we are now seeing players that were part of these European conquests make the step up into senior football and show that they can do it at the highest level. The electric Francisco Trincão, who after showing promise for several years before finally exploding into life under the tutelage of Rúben Amorim, is now impressing for La Liga giants FC Barcelona. Training every day at his club with Lionel Messi, as well as learning from Cristiano Ronaldo when on international duty will do Trincão’s development no harm at all. Rafael Leão, who was part of the under 17 squad in 2016, is showing signs that 2020/21 may be his breakout season at senior level. After showing flashes of brilliance for Lille in Ligue 1, the 20-year-old attacker has already contributed three assists and two goals in just four games in Serie A for Milan this season, as well as scoring in the UEFA Europa League. He is not the only Portuguese talent in Milan however, he was recently joined at the San Siro by his international team-mate Diogo Dalot. Dalot, like Leão, was part of the under 17 title-winning side (as well as the under 19 side).

Diogo Dalot and Rafael Leão celebrate in the Europa League (Photo:AC Milan)

Dalot will be hoping for more first-team opportunities at Milan than what he previously received at Manchester United. His move to Manchester, for one reason or another just hasn’t worked out and as a result, Diogo has had insufficient opportunity to be able to showcase his ability. Like Dalot and Leão, many of their international counterparts are currently plying their trade for top clubs both in Portugal and around Europe. The highly-talented central midfielder Florentino Luís has moved to French outfit AS Monaco on loan, Thierry Correia has been impressing in recent weeks in La Liga with Valencia and João Filipe or as he’s more commonly known, Jota, clearly frustrated with his lack of game-time at Benfica has recently joined Spanish outfit Real Valladolid on loan, hoping to get a chance to fulfil his early promise, the type of promise that saw him win the UEFA Golden Boot at the u19 European Championships.

João Félix, The Year 2000 and Beyond

It is a testament to the strength in depth of this generation that Portugal achieved two European conquests at youth level, whilst undoubtedly the brightest star from this generation wasn’t a part of either. When Hélio Sousa’s men were in Finland for the u19 championships, the 18-year-old João Félix was already playing for Portugal’s u21 side where he was linking up with the likes of Diogo Jota, André Horta and Ferro. After making a record-breaking transfer from Benfica to Atlético Madrid and winning the prestigious Golden Boy award, Félix had a mixed first season, showing his class on several occasions but failed to gain real consistency and continuity due to reoccurring injuries. This season so far we are seeing a different animal, he was instrumental in Atlético’s Champions League tie with RB Salzburg, scoring two goals (including the game-winner) and going mightily close with a terrific bicycle kick, the attempt alone was an indication that this is a player brimming with confidence. He is forging a great relationship with fellow forward Luís Súarez and Félix will be hoping that this season, is his best one yet.

This generation doesn’t just end here with the class of 1999 however, Portugal’s talents stretch far beyond this select group of players that won the u17 and u19 Euros. The crop of players who were born a year after (2000) are also making waves of their own. FC Porto’s UEFA Youth League winning side featured a plethora of players born in the year 2000 and in some cases, even younger (Tomás Esteves & Fábio Silva – 2002). 

Both Fábio Vieira and Vitinha are part of the group born in 2000 and both now play for Portugal’s U21 team. Vieira recently scored his first Champions League goal and is quickly becoming a very important part of Sérgio Conceição’s Porto side. Vitinha, on the other hand, made a move to Wolverhampton Wanderers in the summer and his adjustment to Premier League football will take a little longer, with appearances in the Wolves u23 team to be expected. Vitinha isn’t the type of player to be deterred by the challenge and he has demonstrated thus far that he has all of the right tools to succeed.

 

FC Porto become the first Portuguese club to win the UEFA Youth League (Photo: UEFA)

Another player to be born in the year 2000 and perhaps once of the most hotly-tipped to make it on the senior stage is the wonderful Tiago Dantas. Developed in Benfica’s famed Sexial academy, Dantas recently made the loan switch to Germany to play initially for Bayern Munich II in the German third tier. If early indications are anything to go by, he won’t be in the Bayern second team for long. Manager Hansi Flick has already spoken publicly about his admiration for Dantas and gave his thoughts on what he thinks Dantas could potentially bring to the club. In addition to Flick’s public appraisal of the Lisbon-born midfielder, Dantas was recently included in Bayern Munich’s official first-team photograph, indicating that once he is registered for the senior side in January, he may well play a part during the second half of the season for the Bavarian giants. Pedro Neto, Dantas’ former team-mate at U19 level, is already working hard to establish himself as a first-team regular for Nuno Espírito Santos’ Wolverhampton Wanderers. A product of SC Braga’s youth system, Neto was loaned, along with team-mate Bruno Jordão to Lazio on an initial two-year-deal which included an option to purchase. After this difficult period in Italy, in which he failed to start a single Serie A match, he has now found his feet in perhaps the toughest and most demanding league in the world. With Diogo Jota now gone and after Neto’s bright start, the early-season indication is that this season will be the campaign where Neto becomes a difference-maker for his side.

Opportunity Knocks

After all the hype and all the promise shown at various youth levels, there is one universal truth in football, players need chances. As talented as the aforementioned players may be, it is natural that some players will fail to transition seamlessly from youth to senior level, as is always the case with any crop of young players, Portuguese or otherwise. There is one constant in regards to a players development and that is chances and the frequency of chances. Without regular game-time, it is easy for players to drop below the expected standard, lose motivation and can quickly fall away into obscurity. This, of course, has to be balanced with the fact chances have to be warranted, after all, a coaches prerogative is to win football matches. Rúben Amorim at Sporting CP is a prime example of just how important a coaches role is in the development of a young player. Since his arrival at the Alvalade, he has placed faith in the likes of Nuno Mendes (2002), Daniel Bragança (1999) and Eduardo Quaresma (2002) and as a result, you can visibly see these players growing in confidence each week and by playing senior football where there are real consequences and things at stake, they are gaining experience and picking up the sort of things you simply cannot learn playing youth level.

This generation is one of the brightest in Portuguese history and it is just getting started. Whether they will go on to form a senior side that can once again bring home a major international honour, only time will tell. One thing is for sure though, I can’t wait to find out.

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