How does one define what makes a truly great goalscorer? The knack of finishing an array of chances with unerring quality? The combination of sublime technique with innate, predatory movement? Or perhaps the ability to produce moments of magic in the most high-profile of situations? If any, or indeed all, of the above are used to adjudicate such a title, then Brazil’s Romário must be at the forefront of any debate.

Much like many of South America’s brightest stars, Romário de Souza Faria’s story starts in poverty. Born in 1966, he began life in Jacarezinho – Rio de Janeiro’s second-biggest favela. His father, Edevair, was desperate for his son to prosper beyond the borders of the urban municipality and was overwhelmingly enthused when the youngster began to develop an aptitude for the game he held dear.

Romário joined boyhood side Olaria aged 13 and immediately attracted attention. Despite his small stature, the budding striker used his low centre of gravity and stocky legs to his advantage, exploding past opposition players before they could get their bearings. Having mastered close control from playing 30-a-side games in the concrete jungle to honing a plethora of skills on the white sandy beaches, the Brazilian was a defender’s worst nightmare.

Surprisingly, then, rejection came two years later, when, after trials with regional giants Vasco da Gama, a dismissive coach deemed the adolescent too small to make it in the professional game. Such a knock-back could have de-railed many prospective talents, but not Romário’s.

Decades later, he would brashly retell how it only fuelled his ambitions to chase his dream. “Find a prick to slag you off and motivate yourself with this challenge.” Romário went on to net four times past Vasco in a youth game, before they duly reconsidered and signed him in 1981.

Having come from little means, it was clear Romário was enjoying his elevated social profile. His sensational talent was bound with a love for the anarchic and it was evident from an early age that both would play a significant role in shaping his career.

The striker was embroiled in controversy at the 1985 World Youth Championship when caught urinating off his hotel balcony in Moscow, and he was consequently sent home in disgrace. Three years later, the boy now nicknamed Baixinho (Shorty) due to his diminutive five foot five inch frame would shine for Brazil at the 1988 Olympics, scoring seven times en route to the final. The tournament proved that having Romário at his dizzying best was well worth tolerating his mischievous worst, and those breathtaking displays earned him a big break, securing a transatlantic move to Dutch club PSV.

De Rood-Witten, and indeed the Netherlands, were at the peak of their powers. Manager Guus Hiddink had helped to secure the Eindhoven club an illustrious treble whilst the Oranje had stormed to victory at Euro 88. Romário became a luminary, being one of the first Brazilians to make such a high-profile European move and it wasn’t long before he brought his homeland’s carnival atmosphere to the Netherlands, both figuratively and literally.

“He’s the most interesting player I’ve managed so far. If I was a bit nervous ahead of a big game, he’d say, ‘Take it easy coach, I’m going to score and we’re going to win.’ What’s incredible is that eight out of 10 times, he was right.” Even Hiddink was mesmerised by the mercurial talent. In Romário’s first campaign, he scored 19 Eredivisie goals and helped PSV retain their domestic title.

With his on-pitch party in full swing, it was only natural that the Rio native brought Eindhoven to life at night as well. His house parties were infamous and the striker embodied a wonderfully laid back, carefree lifestyle. He even had sand delivered to his house to lay in his garden, helping it feel more homely. Looking out of his window, the landscape of the low country may not have brought him the same joy as seeing the waves crash up against the Copacabana, but it was good enough for Romário to dismiss feelings of homesickness and focus on football.

And focus he did; four further seasons brought with them two more Eredivisie titles and an astounding 127 goals in 142 appearances. Baixinho’s main weapon of choice was the simple yet deadly toe-poke. Bursting clear of the defence, he exuded sub-zero composure, as if ice coursed through his veins, to finish with great aplomb time after time, prodding or dinking the ball past one helpless keeper after the next.

As Romário’s stock skyrocketed, so too did his ego. “When I was born, the man in the sky pointed to me and said, ‘That’s the guy.’” Such bold declarations of self-indulgence are rarely warmly received and often deter the game’s behemoths, but such was the virtuoso’s invaluable genius, when Barcelona came calling, it was a surprise to no one.

Johan Cruyff was building a dynasty in Spain and in Romário, modern football’s godfather had his crowning jewel. Enjoying Catalonia’s luxurious offerings was a far-cry from the austerity of Jacarezinho, yet Romário had never been defined by his surroundings. Instead, he created environments, as opposed to ever being a product of one.

Regrettably, his spell lasted little over a season due to systematic disagreements with Cruyff about how he should conduct himself and train. Not that it made any difference to his performances on the pitch during this time, though. Indeed, over the course of 18 months he scored 39 times – including a sensational hat-trick in El Clásico – and made the league title his own.

The Champions League was no different. His devastating partnership with Hristo Stoichkov was a sight to behold as the duo danced circles around their opponents, making world-class defenders look distinctively ordinary. Alas, the cherry on the cake was not to be as the Blaugrana were thwarted in the 1994 final by Fabio Capello’s regimented AC Milan. Such was the audacity and swagger of Barcelona, many accused them of simply coming to Athens expecting to collect the trophy, rather than compete for it.

Perhaps the best anecdote of all though is a moment recalled by Cruyff himself. Romário had asked his manager whether he could have some time off training to go to the Rio Carnival. “Laughing, I replied: ‘If you score two goals tomorrow.’ The next day Romário scored his second goal 20 minutes into the game and immediately gestured to me asking to leave. He told me, ‘Coach, my plane leaves in an hour!’ I had no choice but to let him go.” 

The summer of ’94 would mark Romário’s apex. Now firmly established in the national team as what Brazilians call a craque – star player – watching him maraud around the field during the World Cup was nothing short of awe-inspiring. He opened the scoring in their crucial 3-2 quarter-final victory against the Netherlands and held his nerve from the penalty spot in the final against Italy. The maestro’s artistry ostensibly knew no bounds as he helped Brazil to their fourth world title and subsequently collected FIFA’s World Player of the Year award.

His exploits had propelled him into footballing folklore. However, to Brazilians, he represented so much more than just a global superstar. Romário was one of them, a man of the people. He had lived the dream every boy went to bed thinking of in Jacarezinho and had done so with the playful gusto of the party-boy he’d always been, fusing divine and normality to cement his demigod status. 

Back in Barcelona, Cruyff’s indoctrination of his squad may have been seamless for the most part but winning over his prize asset ultimately proved futile. Such an extravagant lifestyle didn’t sit well with the disciplinarian and with that, the striker returned home. Flamengo were the grateful beneficiaries, although it would take two spells at Valencia before the Mengão would truly harness his greatness.

The years 1998 and 1999 yielded an extraordinary 81-goal haul and showcased to the world a Baixinho still every bit as potent as he was throughout his European venture. He also made up one half of the iconic Ro-Ro partnership. A fresh-faced Ronaldo was the youth to Romário’s experience, forging a lethal bond on the field as the pair led Brazil to victory in the 1997 Copa América and qualified for the 1998 World Cup in France.

A muscular injury robbed Romário of a second World Cup, although he rejected claims he was not fit enough for selection in what was, unbeknownst to the striker at the time, his last chance to shine on football’s grandest stage.

Four more years passed by, which included a much-celebrated return home to Vasco and yet more raucous partying. It was hard to tell who feared him more, the fathers of daughters in their 20s or defences across Brazil, and as his life continued swimmingly, so too did his goal tally. Ageing like a fine wine, Romário left defences dumbfounded by trickery and speed of movement in the box. Much like Picasso with painting or Hendrix on guitar, Romário had truly mastered his art.

By the time the 2002 World Cup rolled around, national interest in the Brazilian’s involvement at the tournament was at bursting point. Rather than adding fuel to the fire, though, manager Luiz Felipe Scolari provided the pin that burst the player’s hopes, stating his omission from the squad was down to “tactical and technical reasons”.

The 34-year-old was to be denied a swansong, much to the anger of his nation. A campaign started – which was even championed by Brazil’s president at the time, Fernando Henrique Cardoso – for Scolari to reconsider, but it was to no avail. The player begrudgingly accepted the coach’s decision before becoming overwhelmed with emotion at the support he had received. The love spoke to the impression he had left on Brazilians.

The denouement of Romário’s football career – he’s now a politician – saw him become somewhat of a nomadic journeyman. Highlights included winning his third Brasileirão Série A top-scorer award aged 39, helping Miami FC reach their first ever USL-1 playoffs, and, of course, scoring his 1,000th career goal for his beloved Vasco. That landmark, however, is disputed due to the striker including youth and non-competitive matches in his tally, but what is not up for debate is Romário’s eternal legacy.

Described by Cruyff as “the best player he’s ever coached” and “a genius in the penalty area”, there can be no doubt that he left behind a colossal imprint on the global game. Occasionally conceited, often outspoken, and consistently majestic, Romário remains to this day one of the game’s finest ever marksmen. He was a trailblazer for future Brazilian exports and conquered the world with a naturally infectious character – and those preternatural feet.

A journey through time: the career of Esteban Cambiasso

The next day, he headed north from his Genoa commune to present his findings at the request of Massimo Moratti, president of Internazionale. His discovery regarded the migration of a certain Francesco Cambiaso, an Argentine migrant of Genoese descent. 

In the late 19th century – as a consequence of a mass wave of European migration – Francesco made the transatlantic journey to the port of Buenos Aires, and it was here where he, his wife, and their family of 11 children settled. The peninsula’s population had been decimated after years of ongoing civil war and in the aftermath of its bitter conclusion, Italian and Spanish workers sought to rebuild the nation, whilst seeking better lives for their offspring.

Upon arrival, a transcript error meant the Cambiaso family name officially became ‘Cambiasso’ and it was here in Buenos Aires, decades later, that a young Esteban was brought into the world. The relevance of this document relates to Cambiasso’s eligibility to play for the Nerazzurri. The club had struggled to register the player back in 2004 following his transfer from Real Madrid due to a lack of space on their non-EU player quota. It was Vassallo’s seminal findings, however, that would act as the catalyst for Cambiasso’s claim to an Italian passport, thus completing his move to Inter.

Despite this historical occurrence helping to shape the career path of the youthful midfielder, it was another preceded family event that so nearly led him to forge a profession with his hands, not feet. In 1908, Esteban’s ancestor, Antonio, founded the Villa del Parque – a district of Buenos Aires where years later the GEVP basketball school would be built. Esteban’s father, Carlos, was a basketball fanatic and his mother Tita had an adoration for cestoball (an Argentine sport not too dissimilar to netball). “When I was just three-years-old, my parents noticed how much I liked basketball and they took me, along with my brother Nicolas, to the GEVP basketball school where our elder brother Frederick already played.”

Esteban spent his formative years carrying a ball wherever he went, hedonistically playing with his siblings whilst also learning tactics and plays in the garage from his mother, using stools to replicate opposition players. He was meticulous and studious from an early age and would spend hours observing and trying to replicate his childhood sporting idol, Michael Jordan.

The game of fútbol would have to wait until schooling before it snared Cambiasso’s heart away from baloncesto. By now, he had also been awarded the nickname Cuchu, after popular national television character Chchufilito on account of his skinny frame, blonde hair and warm-hearted nature. His coaches noticed Esteban’s aptitude for starting moves – acquired from playing point guard – and immediately sought to instill in him the art of the pivot role.

Six years honing his new-found craft brought with them a place at Argentinos Juniors’ prestigious academy and mounting interest from Europe. Ajax were coming off the back of a historic campaign having been crowned champions of both the Netherlands and Europe. Manager Louis van Gaal had been notified of Cuchu’s talents and made clear his interest in taking the 15-year-old to Amsterdam. Worried about the drastic cultural shift at such a tender age, his family opted to hold out for a more logistical move to materialise.

And materialise it did, in the form of the game’s great behemoth, Real Madrid. Offered the chance to adorn the iconic Los Blancos shirt without any language barriers proved too good an opportunity to dismiss. So, bags packed, a young Cambiasso travelled to the Spanish capital. “A few months before I had also looked at Ajax but the Dutch culture was so different from Argentina that my family and I were scared. I made the decision to follow a dream: Real Madrid,” Cambiasso recalled in an interview with Marca. “At the age of 15, I found myself surrounded by the biggest stars and they treated me very well, especially Sánchez, Hierro, Redondo, Alkorta and Chendo.”

Two years brought with them 41 appearances and two goals for Castilla, yet cultural barriers or not, spending his adolescent years’ miles away from loved ones took its toll. Indeed, Cambiasso was unsettled and was also lacking the level of competition his budding development craved. “I was given the chance to return to Argentina after two years in Madrid B because I needed more competition. Already in the first team, the politics of the moment meant that most of the side was made up of academy players and Galácticos, and I wasn’t either of those.”

He returned home to his native land, signing for Independiente and broke into senior football with immediate effect. Cuchu was lauded, his play inspired and he exuded confidence and composure well beyond his years. He would also regularly interact with iconic manager César Luis Menotti, always asking for advice as the midfielder passionately continued his quest for self-betterment. It became apparent that Cambiasso was far more than just another player of the beautiful game – he was a devout student.

He went on to taste his first silverware, beginning an addiction for excellence, claiming the Juventud de América twice with Argentina’s under-20 side and becoming a youth world champion in 1997. A transfer to River Plate followed as Cambiasso began to establish himself as one of his country’s brightest stars. 

There was nothing extravagant to his game, his trickery seldom, but for the purists, spending a few minutes watching him orchestrate River’s midfield was all it took to convince them of his excellence. His movement was ergonomic, passing purposeful and command of a game impeccable.

As his reputation grew, so too did Real’s re-kindled interest, and this time Cuchu would take the opportunity with both hands. The 2002/03 campaign saw Cambiasso attain major titles, first winning the Intercontinental and UEFA Super Cups, before adding the coveted La Liga crown. Sitting at the base of midfield whilst rotating seamlessly with the maestro Claude Makélélé, the duo added much-needed balance to Madrid’s attacking flair.

Unfortunately, this was not an opinion shared by club president Florentino Pérez whose acrimonious sale of Makélélé after his request of a pay rise brought about a period of decline. The obdurate Pérez did not see the benefit of the deep-lying midfielder and lambasted both Makélélé and Cambiasso for their “lack of technical ability and pace.”

Another two years in Spain had drawn to a bitter end and once again Cambiasso was on the move. It is here where Inter and Moratti made their move. The Lombardy outfit had been long-term admirers of Cambiasso and negotiated with Madrid about a possible transfer when their Brazilian jewel Ronaldo moved in the opposite direction. At the time, the deal wasn’t feasible but now thanks to the tireless research of Vassallo, the Argentine of Italian decent was officially unveiled as an Inter player.

He arrived into a side of familiar faces. Inter had a strong Argentine core and Cambiasso felt right at home, teaming up with international compatriots such as Javier Zanetti, Nicolás Burdisso, Julio Cruz, and Juan Sebastián Verón.

The club embarked on an era of unassailable dominance, powering their way to five consecutive Scudettos. Having witnessed the decline of Carlo Ancelotti’s Rossoneri and the Old Lady’s dramatic fall from grace in the face of the Calciopoli scandal, the Nerazzurri were enjoying unrivalled success, the type of which had not been seen since the days of Helenio Herrera’s reign.   

Cambiasso played at the fulcrum. A commanding warrior whose craft, guile and industry first helped Roberto Mancini break Italy’s duopoly, before elevating José Mourinho’s men to conquer Europe. “I won the treble with Cambiasso,” said a gleeful Mourinho to The Independent back in 2015, “he belongs to my golden team.” He commandeered the pitch much like a prize conductor leads his orchestra, each player dancing to Cuchu’s masterful beat. His presence was their baton, the ball their metronome, and cunning yet deadly counter-attacks their symphony. 

Despite his success largely emanating from domestic football, if one were to pinpoint the perfect microcosm of Cambiasso’s career, it would be his hand in one of the greatest goals the World Cup has ever witnessed. In a group game against Serbia at the 2006 tournament, Argentina put together an awe-inspiring 25-pass move that culminated in Cuchu finding the back of the net. “A monument of geometry” was how El Mundo chose to describe it, and Cambiasso was at the epicentre of play. The fact the game is remembered for that magical goal – as opposed to it marking Lionel Messi’s first-ever World Cup goal – spoke of its artistry.

Incredibly, four years later, after Inter’s superb treble-winning season, both Cambiasso and Zanetti were omitted from Diego Maradona’s Albiceleste squad. The team lacked solidity at right-back and a deep-lying midfield passer, which inevitably cost Maradona the chance to immortalise his Argentine legacy as a manager, and furthermore, his job. National greats such as Ossie Ardiles chastised the coach’s lack of team cohesion and top-heavy approach by stating: “It is a team game, and it is the team that always comes first, not the individuals.”

After the disappointment of not playing on football’s grandest stage, Cambiasso returned to a very different Inter. The winds of change had begun to take effect as Mourinho exited for Cuchu’s old suitors, Real. After such an unprecedented campaign, the team regrettably regressed. Spanish tactician Rafa Benítez replaced the outgoing Mourinho but didn’t even make it to Christmas.

Brazilian legend Leonardo was Benítez’s successor who, despite inspiring an instant upturn in form, again proved to be an underwhelming appointment. Three managers in the next two seasons was an indication of the unsettlement at the club. Cambiasso, though, remained a stalwart, helping teammates and managers alike, but when long-standing club president and close friend Moratti was not re-elected, he decided to bring the curtain down on an illustrious decade in Milan. 

Needless to say, global interest in the now all-encompassed veteran was rife, however, Cambiasso’s personal allure had always been for the English game. He was somewhat of an Anglophile, intrigued by the lifestyle and enamoured by the football. So, rather than enjoy the relaxing confines of Major League Soccer, he put pen to paper on a year’s deal with plucky Premier League newcomers, Leicester City.

It was a woeful start to life in the east-midlands as the club found it’s self languishing at the foot of England’s top-flight for almost the entirety of the campaign. Cambiasso, however, remained sanguine. He had forged a reputation on English shores as a leader on and off the pitch, a pass-master, and fierce competitor. “For me, winning a cup or winning the league with another team is the same now as having the possibility to save Leicester in the Premier League.” Speaking to the BBC with conviction, he truly believed they could stay up, and as a result, his teammates took notice. 

An incredible run of seven wins from their last nine fixtures was enough to cement the Foxes’ league status for another year and put together the blueprint which would eventually lead Leicester to the Premier League’s summit just 12-months later. The Blues had fallen head over heels for the man they called “magic”, his character had transcended sport and the city became infatuated by his charm. Unfortunately, this was not enough for him to renew his contract as Cambiasso packed up his box of tricks and headed for Greece.

Olympiakos is where Cuchu lived out his Indian summer, helping the Piraeus-based club win back to back Super League titles. Now 37, he has decided to call time on a glittering career and start training towards his coaching badges – a natural step for one of the game’s greatest modern-day students. He has genuine passion and admires many current managers with differing methodologies, not least Zinedine Zidane and Diego Simeone: “They both convey authenticity and that generates credibility, the most important characteristic to be a leader.”

An under-20 world champion, treble winner and national treasure; how divergent his story might have been if the Cambiaso family tree wasn’t so rich with Italian history. For now, it’s fair to say he can take a step back, safe in the knowledge that he has created his very own history, an heirloom of stories that will echo throughout eternity. 

How the modern full-back became football’s hottest commodity

“No one wants to grow up to be a Gary Neville.”

Jamie Carragher’s remark in the Sky Sports studio may have appeared nothing more than a whimsical jibe directed at fellow pundit Neville, however, intentional or not, it was far more nuanced. The humorous insult corresponded with the changing times. In its formative years, the Premier League’s full-backs were generally characterised by their defensive qualities of being able to support their centre-back and occasionally overlapping their fellow wide midfielder. 

As we now know, though, this is an antiquated concept. Modern day full-backs have far more emphasis in the attacking third and build-up phases of the game, with defensive principals in some cases becoming almost an afterthought. Even centre-backs are now tasked with carrying the ball out from deep and aiding transitions and – as is often the case – these responsibilities were embedded across the continental European game long before becoming culturally accepted on English shores.

Players like Franz Beckenbauer were pioneers, giving new meaning to what it meant to be a defender. A talented midfielder in his early playing days, Beckenbauer was moulded into a sweeper due to his unique outlook on the game. Der Kaiser could bring the ball out from the back and had an uncanny knack for splitting opposition lines with pinpoint passes. Despite the Libero role essentially becoming obsolete in the modern game, the basic principles of what the German stars game encompassed still resonate today.

Regarding full-backs, the positions current fundamentals can be accredited to the influence of great Brazilian sides of yesteryear. World-renowned for playing with captivating flair, the iconic yellow strip has always been the embodiment of attacking excellence. The Seleção’s full-backs have proven to be no different, with players as early as the 1958 World Cup demonstrating their offensive panache.

The tournament winners bucked the trend of using the universal W-M formation at the time and sought to play using zonal marking. As South American football expert Tim Vickery notes, full-backs Nílton and Djalma Santos brought the tournament to life and by doing so “set the template for the position.”

Brazil’s blueprint of what the role should incorporate has provided unequivocal success in generations gone by and perhaps reached its apex in June in the Champions League final, with no fewer than three of the four starting wide defenders hailing from the South American peninsula. Indeed, the electric form of Dani Alves, Marcelo and Alex Sandro helped carry Real Madrid and Juventus to Cardiff respectively and only further accentuated the nation’s proclivity for its production of these sublime talents.

The former has been a pillar of success throughout the past decade for both club and country and is arguably one of the greatest right-backs to grace the game. Alves was methodically utilised by manager Pep Guardiola during his time in Catalonia as someone who was integral to maintaining the Blaugrana’s width. With inverted wingers Pedro and David Villa often drifting inside to create overloads in central areas, Alves’ sheer lung capacity allowed him to offer an outlet on the flank, and in turn prevented his opposite number from tucking inside to create a narrow defensive unit.

Of course, not everyone can dominate the ball like Barcelona and so this takes us to Italy. The Azzurri have long been admired for their defensive resoluteness and – according to football historian Jonathon Wilson – are the nation that originally gave the game what we know today as wing-backs. Many Serie A sides, as well as the national team itself, currently play with a back three or five, providing defences with requisite protection and thus allowing full or wing-backs ample license to roam forward and wreak havoc.

This was evident not only in Juve’s 2016/17 Champions League run but also at the 2016 European Championships. Antonio Conte had implemented a 3-5-2 system with wide defenders Mattia De Sciglio and Alessandro Florenzi helping to alleviate pressure. Their presence shored up the back line in times of threat and allowed the Italians to pin opposition wingers in their own half through surging forward runs. Although the tournament ended in bitter defeat after a penalty shoot-out loss to Germany, they could leave France with their heads held high.

Conte has since gone on to manage Chelsea and has taken the Blues atop of English football’s summit. He has done so via a sagacious variation of his Italian formation, opting for a 3-4-3 which has seen two relatively underwhelming players in Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses blossom playing as auxiliary wing-backs. Runners-up Tottenham also chose a similar system with Danny Rose and Kyle Walker lauded for their ability to command an entire flank by themselves.

The dexterous athleticism personified by these players can often leave their opponents looking pedestrian, however to just credit their immense cardiovascular ability would be doing them a disservice. A recent trend in the last five years has seen many journalists and pundits use the term ‘inverted full-backs’. Much like the wingers, full-backs are now also being tasked with tucking inside and helping support their defensive midfielders.

This tactical switch – again championed by Guardiola – has showcased the wonderful technical aptitude some of these lateral defenders are blessed with. With football mirroring the game of chess, as so many of the game’s great thinkers elude to, the switch makes sense as it shields the centre-backs and goalkeeper with added protection – much like moving a rook or bishop in front of the king and queen.

After Philipp Lahm was deployed as a pivot, many other coaches sat up and took notice, with some then experimenting for themselves. In certain circumstances, it has proved an instant success and some cases have even seen full-backs make the permeant move to a midfield birth. This is true of both Raphaël Guerrero at Dortmund and Fabinho in Monaco. Managers Thomas Tuchel and Leonardo Jardim have often been praised for the tactical nous and progressive strategies with this being just one example.

The latter has been given further reason to move Fabinho inside, if not for his newly discovered skillset, then for the stellar breakthrough campaigns of both Benjamin Mendy and Djibril Sidibé. The duo have been the platform upon which the French club’s attacking philosophy has been built. They have transformed Monaco from a very much cautious-first side into a vibrant attacking football utopia. With the principality outfit conquering their domestic league and earning global plaudits en route to a Champions League semi-final, both players alongside numerous teammates are unsurprisingly in high demand.

With English club’s initial disdain ostensibly over, they have finally come to realise the complete use of a full-back and the impact they can have. Couple this with transfer fees only rivalled by the likes of China, and it’s little wonder this type of modern defender is now football’s most sought after asset. Perhaps budding youngsters no longer harbour ambitions of becoming a Gary Neville per se, but in today’s game, who wouldn’t want to be a full-back? 

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How Benfica became a global figurehead in player development

The concept of aggregation by marginal gains was first championed by British cycling performance director Sir David Brailsford. In an interview with the BBC during the aftermath of the London 2012 Olympics, he remarked: “The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improved it by 1 percent, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.”

It’s a comment that may well have gone under the radar had it not been for Team GB’s unequivocal success on home soil. With 12 medals secured – eight of them being gold – Brailsford’s team had truly hegemonised the cycling world, leaving other nations in their wake. The notion of making slight but effective improvements in numerous areas has since transcended two wheels and now holds its rightful place at the epicentre of general sporting development.

Benfica have been at the forefront of player development for many years. However, since the grand opening of their award-winning academy, the Caixa Futebol Campus in 2006, they have gone a step further and successfully blended technological advancements in sports science with innovative coaching techniques to help foster a truly exceptional environment for youngsters to flourish within.

Overlooking the Rio Tejo, the Caixa Campus is a world-renowned academy of excellence. Located in the region of Seixal, just south of Lisbon, the centre is currently home to 15 youth sides, the B-team and the first team squad. The complex spans 19 hectares and consists of nine grass pitches – one of which hosts the B-teams matches with a capacity of 2,720 – two artificial surfaces and a 360-degree indoor ‘football laboratory’ where players’ individual physical fitness components are put to the test. This state of the art facility also accommodates nearly 60 academy prospects who live too far from Portugal’s capital to make the daily commute and are consequently housed in a lavish on-site hotel.

The Águias (Eagles) are renowned for their near-nonpareil scouting network, with 172 scouts currently deployed across the globe. The improvement of the academy, though, has become apparent in the past five years with the production line of homegrown talent accelerating rapidly.

At the heart of the Campus is Benfica legend turned general academy manager Nuno Gomes. The ex-striker is proud of the ongoing project that has produced players of the calibre of Renato Sanches, Bernardo Silva, André Gomes and Gonçalo Guedes in recent times, however he believes this is just the start. Speaking to Wired magazine earlier this year he stated: “The programme here is working, but we want more.”

What’s unique about Benfica’s structure is its almost religious belief in cutting edge sports science. The Portuguese outfit ensures every decision taken regarding their academy starlets is based upon sound data analytics, with the subsequent results there for all to see.

Off the pitch, players’ sleep patterns are recorded, diets are logged and surveys about mental wellbeing are mandatory. On the pitch, GPS sensors and heart rate monitors are worn to track distances and speed, and upon completion of matches, scans are undertaken by each player to highlight any muscle fatigue. All of this data is then calibrated and methodically analysed in order to calculate tailor-made training regimes and diet plans for each player.

Tracking all these variables in the hope of marginal gains helps Gomes and his team meticulously study all aspects of the players’ lives, allowing the staff to liaise efficiently and purposively, from the first team manager to the sports psychologist to the in-house chef. It’s an interdependent environment where no stone is left unturned, and it’s working wonders.

When club president Luís Filipe Vieira spoke to TVI back in 2016, he confidently announced: “We are going to have a team made up 100 percent of players who came through the Seixal academy. That’s our long-term plan and I have no doubt we’ll get there.”

Although it’s hard to doubt that the academy is capable of making such lofty aims a reality, the economic circumstances that dictate this dream make it highly improbable.

With the club unable to match the vast financial clout of Europe’s elite, the Águias have adopted an approach of monetising many burgeoning homegrown stars in order to balance the books. Moreover, as noted by Portuguese football expert Tiago Estêvão, in an era evermore dominated by super agents, the likes of Jorge Mendes have been responsible for using the Caixa Campus as a springboard to reap client’s greater deals elsewhere, much to the detriment of Benfica.

The aforementioned Sanches is a prime example. Having only completed one season of senior Primeira Liga action, the academy graduate was courted by German giants Bayern Munich and, with Mendes coaxing the starlet behind the scenes, a deal of €35 million was quickly struck as Sanches joined Die Roten.

Bernardo Silva, another represented by Mendes, was plucked from the grasp of Benfica after just a single first team appearance and placed into the grateful arms of Monaco. That particular transfer was greeted with begrudged animosity by Benfiquistas who, as Portuguese football writer Marco Lopes points out, was regarded as ‘the most exquisite [academy] talent since a certain Rui Costa’.

This label of being a selling club is nothing new. Over the past seven years Benfica have parted company with no fewer than 12 crucial players for a staggering €376 million, and although the shift in mentality to nurture homegrown talent has been promising, with Benfica having made a habit of selling accomplished youth, it begs the question whether Vieira’s goal will ever be realised?

One man trying his hardest to fulfil his employer’s wishes is first team manager Rui Vitória. Demonstrating the club’s commitment to cohesion at all levels, the 47-year-old has taken time to observe copious academy and B-team sessions and has since blooded the best imported talents such as Victor Lindelöf and Ederson in the first XI.

Last year in an interview with A Bola, Vitória reaffirmed his unwavering belief in the academy: “I’m very alert to Benfica’s B-team and youth teams. Of course I can’t be sure that the players I believe will get to the first team in three years, will do so, but there’s a system in place and we have lots of alternatives. Benfica’s future is guaranteed.”

The relatively infant Caixa Campus recently marked its 10th anniversary since its construction, with worldwide recognition. After winning the prestigious title of Best Academy at the 2015 Globe Soccer Awards, general manager Gomes was beaming with adulation. “It is an award that fills us with pride, it is a sign that we are working well. There are very few academies that are better than ours in terms of their working conditions.”

On-field achievements have been prevalent, as demonstrated by two appearances in the first four UEFA Youth League finals, although Benfica lost both. Despite their only major award coming away from the field of play, the club’s continual progression to the latter stages of European youth competition only further accentuates its outstanding academy.

The conflict of interest between managing the eye-watering €300 million debt and ensuring their youth products see out their peak years in Benfica red remains a challenge, but as the first team claim a historic fourth consecutive league title with a combination of shrewd recruits and homegrown personnel, the positives are there for all to see.

Even if President Vieira’s plan of a solely homegrown first team never materialises, Benfica’s firebrand and avant-garde strategy towards progressive and innovative youth development that has won so many plaudits will surely continue to go from strength to strength – even if it is by the finest of margins. 

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How Surinamese migrants revolutionised Dutch football

Suriname is a country located on the north-eastern Atlantic coast of South America. It is the smallest nation on the continent and plays host to a population of just over half a million. It’s culturally similar to the Caribbean and ships numerous produce such as rice, bananas and sugar. Its greatest exports, however, come in the form of truly gifted footballers.

After originally being explored by the British in the late 17th century, it was the Dutch that colonised Suriname and began to make the most of their agricultural riches. They relied heavily on African slaves to harvest the land and ship goods back to the port of Rotterdam, and eventually – after an agreement with Britain was struck – made Suriname a constitute of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

Suriname’s national language became Dutch and it remained a colony of Netherlands right up until gaining independence in 1975. Despite some positives deriving from self-governance, many of the nation’s inhabitants chose to emigrate to their former European rulers, given the increased opportunity of employment and supplementary salaries.

It is here that the next generation of Oranje stars were born. As Dutch football writer Sander Ijtsma notes, “Holland’s national team has undoubtedly benefitted from using Suriname-born players, who had the potential to make quite the impact.” The Netherlands is widely known for its egalitarian society, however, as many Surinamese locale will tell you, the first wave of mass migration was not received warmly by all.

You had to be at least twice as good as a white player in the same position. Many players quit the game because they weren’t being given the chance to prove themselves. Today, people’s eyes are more open but in the past it was a real struggle.” Those are the words of former Ajax, Milan, Barcelona and Netherlands international Winston Bogarde. Fortunately, in some cases ability trumped prejudice and the Eredivisie was graced by faces of Surinamese descent that would later go on to become Dutch greats.

Holland were coming off the back of a golden era. The 1970s side revered for its Total Football had imbued the beautiful game with revolutionary tactics and awe-inspiring play. Les Oranje reached consecutive World Cup finals in 1974 and ’78, ultimately losing both. Form dipped during a transitional period as the great team of Johan Cruyff, Johan Neeskens and Ruud Krol paved the way for a more multi-cultural squad. What followed marked the Netherland’s greatest international achievement to date.

Still playing with the idiosyncratic verve synonymous with the Dutch style, Surinamese stars such as Frank Rijkaard and Ruud Gullit broke onto the scene and combined technically exquisite football with a dash of South American flair. Their exuberance breathed new life into the squad as they went on to capture the 1988 European Championship.

Whilst the Netherlands may have no longer been as slick as the previous decade, the injection of a different kind of football proved an unequivocal success. Another Surinamese star turned Dutch icon, Edgar Davids, believes his native land takes great influence from bordering Brazil. “Suriname has many similarities to Brazil. There’s lots of poverty and a lot of kids on the street who have no money, come from broken homes and have plenty of time on their hands. They play football all the time and they learn to play with their bare feet.”

After ending their major tournament hoodoo and bringing international acclaim to the low country, Surinamese migrants were finally celebrated more than criticised. This was never more prevalent than when a charity match was organised in 1991 to help raise funds for victim’s families of a plane crash just outside of Paramaribo, Suriname’s capital. The match pitted a Suriname side containing the likes of Gullit, Rijkaard and Bogarde against a Dutch select XI in front of a mutual partisan crowd. Suriname ran out 3-1 victors.

It’s not just the national side that has benefited either. In 2009 FIFA reported that there were nearly 150 players in the Eredivisie who could claim ancestry to the South American peninsula. One of the few Surinamese journalists, Humberto Tan, believes Holland would have been in a much worse state throughout the 1980s had it not been for Surinam’s influence. He controversially remarked: “Without the Surinamese, the Dutch team would be like Germany. The team would be weak, soft, strange, they wouldn’t be very creative and wouldn’t be exciting to watch.”

Sadly the delicate issue of racism returned to fore once again in 1996. With rifts appearing in the national squad during Euro 96, newspapers and various other media outlets rather presumptuously claimed there was a divide between the white and black players after pictures emerged of the team eating lunch on separate tables. Tan rubbished the rumours explaining the rift was more to do with manager Guus Hiddink placing too much faith in the senior players and disregarding their youthful counterparts.   

With Louis van Gaal’s legendary Ajax side lifting the 1995 Champions League, many thought that Surinamese players like Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf and Patrick Kluivert deserved more recognition on the international stage. The obdurate Hiddink, however, held a diametrically opposing view. The Surinamese were also often unfairly awarded the epithet ‘lazy’ due to their laid-back Caribbean culture, but whether this insular stereotype played a part or not has never been proven.

With the sardonic attitude surrounding Surinamese players in the mid-90s, it begs the question as to why more of them did not chose to represent their homeland internationally. The answer lies in the current socio-political landscape of Suriname. Since its independence, the country has been a place of unease as dictatorships have seen unemployment figures and famine continually rise. One law states that any citizen who migrates to the Netherlands is no longer eligible to represent the national side.

This puts young indigenous players in an uncompromising position when pursuing a career in football. The standard of coaching is poor in comparison to Europe and the league structure also leaves a lot to be desired, creating a kind of catch 22 situation. So when youngsters are offered academy trials and professional contracts in the Netherlands it’s little wonder they opt out of Suriname’s national programme.

Currently ranked 118th in FIFA’s footballing ladder, and their only star of any note being Giovanni Drenthe – Royston’s brother – the nation’s hopes of qualifying for a maiden World Cup or Olympics seem bleak. 

On top of this, cosmopolitan cities such as Amsterdam offer some of the world’s finest coaching and can act as a modern springboard to the top of the European game. Gullit reaffirmed this belief when he stated: “The coaching in Holland is some of the best in the world. Players are raised with attention to tactics and technique. That has benefited the Surinamese players and also the Dutch players. That mixture has helped produce interesting and exciting teams and it’s made us what we are.”

To this day Les Oranje still profits from Surinamese players, with the latest crop of international stars including Virgil van Dijk, Jeffrey Bruma, Michel Vorm and Georgino Wijnaldum. The relationship between the two nations has been arduous at times but the proclivity to migrate has ascended the Dutch to glory and will surely bear more fruit than just bananas in years to come.

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Ricardo Quaresma and the storied journey of an enigmatic prodigy

Portuguese football is embedded with a rich heritage of sublime attacking talents. From the great striking exploits of Eusébio to Barcelona star turned Galáctico icon Luís Figo, Portugal is a nation that’s been blessed with players of breathtaking calibre through the years. Their craftsmanship has imbued fans across the peninsula and led to many unenviable comparisons for their future produce.

At the turn of the millennium, two rising stars were burdened by this weight of expectation. After being billed as the next Figo, these indigenous adolescents were turning heads with their blistering pace and majestic trickery. Both wingers – with jet black hair and deep Mediterranean tans – were undoubtedly the most exciting talents the famed Sporting CP academy had produced in years. Their names were Cristiano Ronaldo and Ricardo Quaresma.

The latter, one-and-a-half years Ronaldo’s senior, was widely considered the more naturally gifted of the duo. Born and raised in the nation’s capital, Quaresma was affectionately nicknamed O Cigano [the gypsy] due to his mother’s Romani decent. He and Ronaldo formed a strong bond both on and off the field with a similar style of play and comparably troubled upbringings. With both players’ careers seemingly destined to dovetail en route to greatness, it strikes a peculiar chord to learn that they went on to walk vastly opposite paths.

Quaresma’s first taste of the professional game was handed to him by Sporting legend and B team manager Vítor Damas. Having risen through the youth ranks from the age of 14, the winger dazzled with all the swagger and panache fans have now become accustomed to over the years. Damas – an ex-goalkeeper for the club himself – earning no fewer than 332 caps, saw the untapped potential in the youngster and immediately afforded him licence to roam. His faith proved to be well placed when, after just 15 appearances, Quaresma was beckoned into the first team set-up.

Ostensibly needing time to acclimatise to the step up in playing standard, it came as a pleasant surprise to see the winger establish himself as an integral member of the squad within his first season of Primeira Liga action. His ability to cut in from either flank and shoot or cross with the kind of curve that had only previously been seen from the likes of David Beckham made him an instant hit. Notching five goals in his maiden campaign, he helped Sporting secure an illustrious league and cup double.

The following 2 years saw the mercurial starlet continue his meteoric rise. His nonchalant demeanour yet agile verve was only dampened by his fiery temperament, which at times had begun to tarnish some mesmeric displays. Whilst Quaresma and Ronaldo’s stock skyrocketed, Sporting slumped and it soon became infeasible for the Lisbon outfit to retain the services of their prodigal sons.

A transfer in the region of €6 million agreed, the plucky 19-year-old moved to one of the biggest establishments in world sport – FC. Barcelona. In a summer that also saw the departure of Ronaldo to Manchester United, both youngsters looked to be well on course to attaining the elite level their aptitude promised to provide. Unfortunately, whilst Ronaldo’s childhood traumas acted as a harbinger of motivation, Quaresma’s helped shape the catalyst for his self-destruction.


O Cigano joined the Blaugrana at a time of change, with newly elected club president Joan Laporta seeking to aide the Catalans ascent after a period of decline. Following the advice of club icon Johan Cruyff, Frank Rijkaard was appointed manager alongside a plethora of new signings.

Quaresma’s arrival went somewhat under the radar as marquee recruit Ronaldinho stole the headlines. Having been purchased for a cool €27 million from Paris Saint-Germain following his Brazilian World Cup triumph in the summer, all eyes were firmly on the buck-toothed wonder. But a new contract, quickly accelerated social profile and even a cameo in Nike’s famous Olé advert, all appeared too much too soon for Quaresma to handle.

Rijkaard had attempted to instil his tactical vision within Quaresma, giving him a crash-course in positional play. Much like his coaches at Sporting, Rijkaard realised the stunning potential at his fingertips, however felt in order to fully harness it, the winger must learn to be tactically disciplined.

Adopting an attitude not dissimilar to that of a petulant child, the player and manager’s relationship soured rapidly as Quaresma’s toys came crashing out the pram. Uninterested in being told how and where to play, his polemic rant to the press encapsulated the wingers’ pent-up frustration: “At Sporting I was always given a free role and I was brought to Barça under the pretences that I would be allowed to play the same way.” He continued: “I have not gotten the opportunities nor do I have the confidence of the manager.”

Quaresma belligerently disregarded his manager’s coaching, deeming it patronising as opposed to a quest for self-betterment. This wasn’t the last time he would spark conflict with the hierarchy of his employers in what became an all too familiar trend. After refusing to play again for Rijkaard, he was swiftly sold back to his native Portugal, this time to Porto along with €15 million in return for the services of playmaker Deco.

It was here where Quaresma spent the next four years of his career and began to rekindle the kind of form that had once seen him heralded as Portugal’s next saviour. Over a second stint in his homeland, he scored 30 goals and helped the Dragões to three consecutive league titles. He also honed a skill that would later become his trademark – the trivela.

Quaresma’s form reached its pinnacle in his final two years as he cemented a regular place in the national side’s starting line-up. His exceptional form was thanks in no small part to coach Jesualdo Ferreria. Porto’s manager cited the importance of not putting too much tactical strain on the now 22-year-old and allowed Quaresma to express himself. “I don’t want him [Quaresma] to lose his personality and individuality otherwise he’ll turn into an average player rather than the genius he is.”

It wasn’t long before he was attracting a host of potential suitors and, fresh from carving his own name into the history books with Chelsea, José Mourinho was the man to offer Quaresma a shot at big-club redemption with Internazionale. An €18 million fee was agreed and the youngster was once again thrust into the spotlight.


Frustratingly, his time at Inter played out in near perfect symmetry to that of his spell at Barcelona. Starting with systematic difficulties grasping Mourinho’s regimented tactics, another clash in footballing ideologies left Quaresma far down the pecking order. In a year that former team-mate Cristiano Ronaldo captured his first Ballon d’Or, Quaresma was embarrassingly presented with the Bidone d’Oro – an award given to the worst player in Serie A.

A loan spell inevitably followed, this time to London and Mourinho’s previous employers, Chelsea. The winger appeared enthused at the prospect of teaming up with his former national team mentor Luiz Felipe Scolari but it wasn’t to be. Scolari was relieved of his duties in favour of Guus Hiddink just a solitary week after Quaresma’s arrival and, four pitiful games later, another torrid campaign was ended.

Back in Italy, after Inter failed in their attempts to offload the troublesome virtuoso, he seemed unwilling to tailor his game accordingly to incorporate Mourinho’s defensive mindset. Used sparingly in a season where the Nerazzurri took Europe by storm, winning an unprecedented treble, Quaresma’s name on the list of forgotten wonderkids seemed to have been all but carved in stone.

He left Inter in the summer of 2010 for Turkish side Beşiktaş. After two wholly underwhelming years in Lombardy, he stayed true to his rollercoaster of a career and began his latest upsurge. A stellar first year saw the Portuguese midfielder score 11 goals, each more sensational than the last. He helped his new club to the Turkish Cup final where he scored the opener and was subsequently awarded man of the match as Beşiktaş ran out 4-3 winners on penalties.

The next season started in a similar vein. Using every ounce of his guile and creativity, Quaresma would leave defenders and fans alike dumbfounded as he jinked and scurried his way past challenges before beginning his onslaught on the opposition goal. The selfish predictability showcased at Inter and Chelsea looked a far cry from the rejuvenated, incalculable, savvy speed merchant Sporting fans remembered so fondly.

It wasn’t to last, though.

In Beşiktaş’ last-16 Europa League fixture against Atlético Madrid, Quaresma was hauled off at half-time. Trailing 1-0, O Cigano was unable to control his inner rage, breaking into a vehement tirade branding manager Carlos Carvahal ‘worthless’ before allegedly hurling a water bottle in his direction.

The ugly scenes left the player and coach’s relationship in tatters and, for the third time in little over eight years, Quaresma found himself at loggerheads with his boss. On this occasion, the board showed its folly and opted to side with their star man as Carvahal was duly dismissed.


The summer brought about the final straw for the insouciance talent. His toxic attitude was slowly poisoning the rest of the squad, something that did not sit well with the chairman. He was told he could stay if he agreed to a pay cut. He refused. What ensued was nothing short of war.

From being accused of urinating in the changing room by club officials to his arrest for assaulting a police officer when pursuing an individual believed to have mugged his mother, Quaresma’s time at the club was drawn to a bitter end. With his fall from grace having now hit rock bottom, he was released in disgrace.

After a drastically lacklustre time in the Middle East with Al Ahli followed by seven months in free agent wilderness, Quaresma returned home to Porto and was presented with the number 7 shirt in front of 10,000 fans. It was perhaps apt, then, that the club which gave him the original springboard to get his early career back on track provided the 30-year-old with yet another chance of a rebirth.

The next season-and-a-half broadcast the wonderful ability of the now seasoned veteran as he captured the joy of supporters but also the regret when the question of ‘what if’ was raised. Having supposedly quelled his indignation from years gone by, an incident in 2014 made him descended into yet another apoplectic fit.

After being racially abused for his gypsy heritage, Quaresma had to be restrained by friends and officials as he confronted Fernando Marçal. After cooling down he later stated: “When I hear people say there is no racism these days it makes me laugh. When something happens in Portugal it’s always the fault of gypsies, blacks, immigrants. It’s tough to live with this.”

For all his flaws, Quaresma is extremely proud of where he comes from and fiercely loyal to those he respects. Having rejoined Beşiktaş in 2015, it seems O Cigano may have finally matured. Reflecting on his misspent yesteryears in an interview with O Jogo, he recently confessed: “I didn’t have the patience at Barcelona, I couldn’t bear being on the bench. It was an idiotic attitude. Perhaps I could have done more with my career but in life there are opportunities that either you take or they pass by and sometimes we fail at those.”

Reinvigorated and with his new found moral compass, Quaresma was selected for his nation’s Euro 2016 campaign. An extra-time header against Croatia and match-winning penalty versus Poland helped Portugal on the way to claiming their first major international title. If his first spell at Beşiktaş was his nadir, then last July marked his apex.

For all his trials and tribulations, this is a player who should be remembered for his graceful élan rather than a sinful inability to kowtow. Despite his stoic past, Quaresma’s raison d’être is, and always will be, his seamless ability to embellish football pitches with the kind of artistry we’re only used to seeing from world-class entities.

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