Próxima Jornada examines the U23 project that has helped launched the careers of André Franco, Matheus Nunes and Toti Gomes.
In 2018/19, Liga Portugal decided to shake things up at youth level and created a new competition called Liga Revelação, a place for young players to develop in a competitive environment against those of a similar age.
Estoril Praia, a club based in the Municipality of Cascais, have used the formation of Liga Revelação to great benefit in recent years and are statistically the most successful club in the competition to date. In the four seasons that have been completed since the competition’s formation (2019/20 had no winner due to COVID), Estoril Praia have won the competition twice and this season they finished in third place, level on points with the winner but lost out on the title due to head-to-head. In addition to two league titles, they have also won the domestic cup companion to the league, the Taça Relevação, twice.
Matheus Nunes (Wolves), André Franco (Porto), Miguel Crespo (Fenerbahçe), Toti Gomes (Wolves), Chiquinho (Wolves) and Marcos Antonio (Lazio) have all passed through Estoril’s U23 team before being sold on for profit. In fact, 34 players who played for Estoril’s U23 team are now playing for professional clubs around the world.
For Estoril, it’s not just about development to sell the players either, but they use the U23 team to get players ready and at a level to be able to help the first team in the future. At the time of writing, there are five players in Estoril’s first team who have come through from their U23 side in the form of Dani Figueira, Bernardo Vital, Tiago Santos, João Marques and João Oliveira. These five players have made a combined 93 Liga Portugal appearances this season and contributed to Estoril maintaining their top-flight status for another season.
How do they do it?
The club has a core ideology and principles which they adhere to in order to gain the best results both off and on the pitch.
One of the key components is to discover young talents from lower division clubs and/or recruit players from the so-called “top clubs”. The Canarinhos are able to successfully recruit players from the bigger academies because they can offer a clear pathway for a player’s progression – a pathway which often ends with the player earning valuable minutes in Estoril’s first team. This is a great strength of Estoril because it is something that the bigger clubs can’t always offer due to their vast talent pool of players.
Pedro Alves, Estoril Praia’s sporting director touched on this:
“We are located in a geographical area where it is difficult to compete against those who have a plethora of resources greater than ours. But given what has been the name we have built in the market, we understand that we can have a different offer, of having players more prepared to soon reach our first team”.
Take Wolves’ Chiquinho for example. Born in 2000, he joined Sporting’s academy in the 2009/10 season and then spent the next eight seasons at the Lisbon-based club, developing and moving through the youth ranks. Estoril paid attention to his progress and in 2017/18 they signed the player on loan and he spent the season with the club’s under-19 side. Two seasons later he was back at Estoril, this time he had signed permanently and was placed in the under-23 side. His six goals in the 2020/21 season helped Estoril to win their first Liga Revelação title and Chiquinho was then promoted to the club’s first team where he would continue to shine before being picked up by Wolves.
Chiquinho isn’t a unique case either, a similar story has repeated itself with many players currently or formerly involved with Estoril Praia.
It’s not just the bigger clubs that have the best talent either, Estoril pays close attention to those clubs operating on a smaller scale than themselves and when the time is right, they are able to move for a player if they think they are ready to make the step up.
In the case of Toti Gomes, he was playing for GDS Cascais, a club that is located just a 15-minute drive from Estoril Praia’s stadium. Estoril recruited him to play for their under-19 team with a vision of promoting him to the under-23 team before moving him to the first team. His progression was seamless and after amassing 29 appearances for the U23s, Toti made the step up into the first team and not long after Wolves came calling. The Midlands club signed the player and immediately loaned him out to Swiss outfit Grasshoppers in order to give Toti a new experience in a different surrounding. Fast forward to today and Toti has become an integral part of Julen Lopetegui’s Wolves side, starting seven of Wolves’ last nine matches in the Premier League. His strong performances have earned Toti a call-up to the latest Portugal squad for the upcoming games in June.
For Matheus Nunes, he was a 19-year-old playing in the Lisbon district leagues for Ericeirense, sharing the pitch with players twice his age and playing in a stadium with a capacity of 400. Estoril paid close attention to the Brazilian-born midfielder and moved to sign him. Despite Nunes’ experience in a senior league, Estoril placed him in the U23 side in order to manage his progress before moving him into the first team where he continued to impress. Sporting then signed him in January 2019.
Guilherme Muller, the CEO of Estoril Praia emphasises that for Estoril it’s crucial to look at homegrown players due to the increasing costs in football.
“In a market with a small size, where it is very challenging to substantially increase commercial revenues, and with high context costs, it is increasingly difficult to capture talent from countries that were traditionally an interesting target for Portuguese clubs. It is important that we see this scenario as an opportunity to develop and continue to bet more and more on the training of young players who can make an important contribution to our main teams before making the leap, which is inevitable, to markets with better conditions”.