Bernardo Silva, Goncalo Guedes and Joao Felix might be worth a combined 300 million euros in today’s transfer market but they mean more than money to Benfica, the club that discovered them.
For Benfica they are a source of pride and vindication of a youth policy that as seen the club surpass bitter rivals Sporting Lisbon, cradle of Ronaldo, as the chief talent factory of Portugal.
Benfica, who host Lyon on Wednesday in the group stage of the Champions League, are reaping the rewards from the club’s academy base opened in 2006 in Seixal, a working class suburb on the south coast of the Tagus estuary.
“Youngsters can make the difference for us, they have become fundamental,” Benfica coach Bruno Lage said in an interview with AFP.
The 43-year-old has coached at all levels of the club and says the “decisive moment” in their success was the emergence of a generation led by Silva and Joao Cancelo, both of whom now play at Manchester City under Pep Guardiola.
“The 1994 crop has won trophies at the highest level of the game and by analysing the success of that group, we have been able to replicate it,” said Lage, who initially returned to the club in 2018 to coach the B team, after six years spent abroad.
During his absence, the president of Benfica, Luis Filipe Vieira, hired Rui Vitoria, who signed up to the mantra of trusting and giving opportunities to youngsters but was sacked in January following a run of poor results.
Before Vitoria, the strategy under his predecessor Jorge Jesus had been to unearth rough diamonds in South America, with the intention of nurturing them through the process of adaptation to European football.
It was a path well-trodden by Porto and the model bore fruit as David Luiz and Angel di Maria were both bought and sold on for considerable profit, joining Chelsea and Real Madrid respectively for a combined €50-million.
“When I came back, I found a solid training project, where the coach of the professional team regularly drew on players from the academy,” says Lage, who last season gambled on Felix, the 19-year-old forward who was sold to Atletico Madrid in the summer for €126-million, a fee that smashed records in Portuguese football.
This season, his squad includes eight players from the school of Seixal, including Portuguese internationals Ruben Dias and Gedson Fernandes, as well as up-and-comers like Florentino Luis, Ferro and Jota.
And while the Portuguese team that won Euro 2016 was largely made up of players from Sporting’s youth system, today it is the youngsters brought through by Benfica that dominate the national set-up.
After an initial investment of €15-million and with an annual budget of five million euros, the club spent an additional 11 million euros to expand and upgrade its facilities in 2017.
It means a 42-hectare site purchased this year will triple the size of the training centre, which is also to include its own school.
Financially, the sales of players “made in Seixal” have already cashed in nearly half a billion euros and Benfica posted profits in 2018 for a fifth consecutive year.
Among the 88 players aged 11 to 18 who live there is midfielder Pedro Pato, who is part of the under-15 team. Pato, 14, came to Seixal three years ago and says he finds the regime “much tougher” than at the club he left in Vila Franca de Xira, a town in the northern suburbs of Lisbon.
“The demands at all levels are very high to give the young players the best possible chance of reaching the professional team,” says Rodrigo Magalhaes, technical coordinator of the training centre.
Yet the club’s focus now is to “move up a gear,” Bruno Lage says. “We must be able to hold on to our young gems to become more competitive.”
Benfica are still waiting for their first Champions League win this season after two straight defeats against Leipzig and Zenit St Petersburg. There is a bright future but in the present, work to do.
© Agence France-Presse