zenduck.me: Inside the Benfica talent factory We want our kids to win a Ballon dOr

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“I just want to hear the ball touching the feet,” Joao Milho says.

A long day of training across multiple age groups is coming to an end at Benfica’s academy in Seixal, where the south side of Lisbon — a 20-minute ferry ride across the River Tagus — has all but disappeared in the darkness.

It is hard to see anything but footballers now (more than 50 of them, across two age groups, chasing the ball — and the dream) under the floodlights.

Milho is coaching the under-14s and has just finished demonstrating a triangular passing exercise: sweeping a moving ball across his body first time with either foot to a player to the left and the right of him. He makes it look easy.

Some of the players find it much more difficult. “The yellow cone is the greatest defender in the training session, it’s getting all the balls,” Milho shouts moments later after another wayward pass hits one of the three markers where the boys are stationed.

His comment prompts laughter from a couple of us watching from the fringe of the pitch, but Milho is not joking. He is here to work: to coach the best of the best and to develop players who can go on to perform at an elite level for Portugal’s biggest club.

A Benfica under-17s training session at the Seixal base, with Lisbon visible in the distance (Photo: The Athletic)

Last week, The Athletic were invited to Benfica’s academy to see that process up close. Granted access all areas, we were given a fascinating insight into life inside Benfica’s talent factory.

We learned that the best way to watch a young Joao Felix was by lying on the floor, we observed training sessions that carried hidden messages, met Joao Cancelo’s potential successor and, perhaps more than anything else, discovered just how much it means to the academy staff to see one of their own making their debut for Benfica.

“That is one of our biggest trophies when that happens,” says Pedro Marques, the youth technical director, his face beaming. “We can win the under-15s league — that is a milestone and it’s important — but a real trophy is when those players achieve their dreams: when they play for Benfica in the stadium and they see the eagle. There is no better feeling. We know it’s very impactful for them as players but also for us.”


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Marques rolls up his sleeves, looks at his arms and smiles. “It gives us goosebumps when we think about it and when we see the boys,” he adds. “And then every time they are on the bench, we are thinking, ‘Put the kid on! He can play!’”

Marques and his colleagues get to experience that feeling more often than most. The artwork in the corridor outside the academy changing rooms at the Seixal campus provides a reminder of just how many players have come through the academy in recent years — Ruben Dias, Bernardo Silva and Renato Sanches among them.

Goncalo Ramos, who upstaged Cristiano Ronaldo when he scored a hat-trick for Portugal against Switzerland after being selected ahead of him in the World Cup finals last year, is the latest addition to a wall of fame that constantly needs updating.

Benfica’s youth technical director Pedro Marques (Photo courtesy of Benfica)

Space will soon have to be found in the corridor to tell the story of Antonio Silva, the 19-year-old centre-back who made his debut for Benfica earlier this season and is already attracting the attention of Europe’s biggest clubs.

Alongside Ramos, Florentino Luis and Goncalo Guedes, who is on loan from Wolves, Silva is one of four former academy players featuring regularly in a Benfica team that sit top of the Primera Liga after losing only once all season and are away to Club Bruges in the last-16 of the Champions League this evening.

Rodrigo Magalhaes, who has been working for Benfica since 2005 and is now the academy’s technical coordinator, nods when it is put to him that he must be proud of that quartet.

“Yes,” Magalhaes says, before pausing for a moment. “(But) it’s not enough.”

So what would be? “To have at least six or seven players regularly in the first team, win the Champions League and then one, two or three of them win a Ballon d’Or.”

The expression on Magalhaes’ face says that he is deadly serious and, in many ways, captures the level of ambition inside Benfica’s academy.

The long and winding journey to the Estadio da Luz starts at the age of five for some boys. Magalhaes first saw Joao Felix play at that age and was so blown away by what he was witnessing that he felt the need to lie down — literally.

“It was indoors in a school in Viseu,” he says, his eyes lighting up at the memory. “I remember one or two times I put myself on the ground to see the way he touched the ball with his feet. It was amazing.”

Viseu is one of five regional talent centres that Benfica operate in Portugal, enabling the club to recruit and coach players from all over the country. The club’s main academy is based on two separate sites: Lisbon, where the younger age groups train in the evenings, and Seixal, which is home to the under-14s through to the B team and also where the first team trains.


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To put the scale of Benfica’s commitment to finding and developing talent into context, there are more than 500 players currently in the club’s academy system across all their age groups (that includes the talent centres) and 115 coaches employed. It is a huge operation.

Another 90 staff, specialising in everything from welfare and nutrition to medicine and psychology, are based at the Seixal campus, which opened in 2006. It is home to nine pitches and also provides accommodation for 90 boys who live, breathe and sleep football in between being educated at a local school.

None of this comes cheap — the annual cost of running Benfica’s academy is around €10-12million (£8.8-10.5m; $10.7-12.8m) a year. The flip side is that three of the academy graduates currently in the first team — Silva, Florentino and Ramos — would be worth more than 10 times that amount between them, not to mention the huge sums that have been generated by selling home-grown players in the past.

Centre-back Antonio Silva, 19, is the latest talent to come out of the Benfica youth system and is already attracting interest from across Europe (Photo: Octavio Passos/Getty Images)

“I think Benfica is quite unique or different from a lot of other clubs because this is really a long-term project for us in terms of the academy,” Marques adds. “We don’t buy the best under-16s or the best under-17s in Europe or in the world and then leave them two or three years so that they can get to the first team.

“It’s a strategy of other clubs to do it like that. Our way is about getting contact with the players at a very young age, introducing them to Benfica (and) connecting them with the club; that starts with the five talent centres, plus Lisbon, that we have across the country.

“It’s the entry point for the boys to connect, and both Goncalo (Ramos) and Antonio (Silva) started with one of those talent centres: Antonio in the north and Goncalo in Faro. So that shows you the time that these players have been with us and the time that it takes — it’s never a straight line.”

Silva’s story is interesting. After impressing in Viseu, he was invited to take up a residential place at Seixal. Although that is viewed as a fantastic footballing opportunity for any talented child, nobody would pretend that leaving home at such a young age is easy.

The club carefully chooses room-mates — every boy shares with at least one other player — and the support staff do everything they can to make the experience as normal as possible or, in the words of Marques, “to be like parents when their parents are not around”.

There are no single bedrooms at the Seixal campus, where up to 90 boys from the age of 12 live (Photo: The Athletic)

It could be something as simple as ensuring that a birthday cake has been made or dealing with a more complicated issue that requires emotional support. Inevitably, some boys will settle easier than others. In the case of Silva, it was too much for him at first and he returned to his family — based over 290kms away.

“Player development is not all rainbows and sunny days,” says Marques, who was previously a first-team performance analyst for Manchester City. “To manage the ups and downs, the challenges and also the joys of this journey, you can only do it if you are close to the boys, close to the families; if you really understand how they are as a person.

“Because the example with Antonio, the challenge he had was not a football challenge. It was more about his adaptation here. With the family, we agreed that it would be better to go back to them. We managed to get a club where he could train for one more year, then we tried again the year after. He adapted better and we took it from there.”

Silva’s emergence at first-team level this season has still come as a surprise. Last season he was part of an exceptional Benfica under-19 team that won the UEFA Youth League, beating Red Bull Salzburg 6-0 in the final.

Joao Felix’s brother, Hugo, was in the same side along with Joao Neves, a talented 18-year-old midfielder who has also made his debut this season and tucks his shirt in his shorts every bit as neatly as he plays. The three of them stand shoulder to shoulder in the team celebration photo that fills one of the walls in the reception at Seixal.

The campus’ reception is adorned with a print of the under-19 team that won the UEFA Youth League last season — note (third from right) Hugo Felix, (second right) Antonio Silva, who now plays for the first team, with Joao Neves next to him, also in the first-team squad (Photo: The Athletic)

The natural progression for Silva would have been to play for Benfica’s under-23s or the B team, who compete in Liga Portugal 2 (the second division). Instead, Silva was parachuted into the first team after Roger Schmidt, Benfica’s German coach, opened the door to a host of academy players during pre-season.

“We knew and we felt strongly that Antonio could achieve first-team level, that he could be a starter in the future,” Marques says. “But I cannot name one person that was expecting that he would get there, play, stay in there straight away, and play in the Champions League at such a young age and so frequently in the starting XI — and that can only be inspiring for everybody here.”

“We call it the positive way of playing,” Filipe Coelho, Benfica’s under-19 coach, says. “We want connections close to each other and not only in 11-a-side. We try to link players close to each other in seven-a-side and nine-a-side, too (in the younger age groups), because we want to grow together until the last third of the pitch. We try to look for numerical superiorities in the game — basically, overload spaces.”

Coelho is explaining Benfica’s playing philosophy in the academy, a subject that he is well qualified to talk about after working for the club for 16 years and coaching every age group from under-12 to under-19 level.

Those principles that Coelho referenced above are ingrained within the 4-3-3 formation that serves as Benfica’s starting point in 11-a-side football at academy level. Crucially, though, the players have the freedom to express themselves.

“I think it’s important to have the guidelines that we have. But it’s important not to over-coach or damage the talent,” Coelho says. “Sometimes we feel — fortunately not in Benfica… but I think the Portuguese culture since Jose Mourinho, (it) goes the other way, so sometimes we see the game of the coaches, not the players.”

Benfica’s long-serving under-19 coach Filipe Coelho leads a training session (Photo courtesy of Benfica)

Asked if he means a more pragmatic style of playing, Coelho replies: “More pragmatic and trying to make it like a dance so you have a choreography. But the game is not choreography. They (the players) have to read the game: they have to adapt, they have to decide for themselves. So we help build the path, but the path is then built from the players.”

By way of example, Coelho says there are times during his training sessions when he is “seeing two solutions, but the best players are seeing more solutions than me”.

It brings to mind Magalhaes’ story about the time Bernardo Silva was training with Benfica under-12s and the coach set up a new exercise to test the players, anticipating that he would need to give the boys five or six minutes to come up with some answers before then having to explain everything to them.

Silva had multiple solutions within 10 seconds. “The coach said to me, ‘What the f*** is this?’” Magalhaes recalled. “‘I need to throw this training session in the bin’.”

Interestingly, Coelho talks about developing training practices for players that “link behaviour that we want for the game without telling them”. It is a clever way of coaching that means the learning is subliminal and more natural.

Indeed, the session he took with the under-19s prior to our interview was intriguing to watch. In one of the drills, he set up a pitch with four mini-goals at each end. The game was eight-a-side, with two neutral players positioned at both ends between the goals. There was also a neutral player in the centre of the pitch to guarantee an overload for the team in possession that, Coelho explains, “gives the feeling of success” when playing out from the back.

“The exercise talks a little about the way we see the game,” Coelho says. “The rule of the game is you can score in the small goals with a combination with the neutral players standing between the goals. It can be a direct combination or looking for the third-man run. But the goal is only valid if all the team is in the offensive half — to grow together.

“Also, when the defending team are close to the goals, if the (attacking) players feel that it’s not the right time (to score), we have to attract them again. So the central defenders and the full-backs have to go back again, to give space, and try to attract the pressure again to look for the space. So that’s maturity in our game.”

The roar is loud — loud enough to know that a goal has been scored somewhere.

It turns out that the under-23s, who are playing away against Famalicao, have just equalised. The game is being shown on televisions throughout the campus — even under-14 matches are broadcast in the canteen — and the reaction to the goal says everything about the culture within Benfica’s academy.

“When I look at the players and when I look at the staff, their absolute commitment to a Benfiquista is incredible,” says Nick Chadd, the club’s head of sports science and strength and conditioning. “You see the boys come and support different age groups, different sports, seeing them at the women’s games: they are truly fans as much as they are players for the club.”

Chadd, another former Manchester City employee, goes on to talk about the “massive amount of people at Benfica who want to be involved in the support structure for kids” — something that shines through when you walk around at Seixal.

Nothing is left to chance, right down to a sport psychologist being allocated to every age group from under-13 upwards to work with the coaches as well the boys. The psychologists watch every training session from the side of the pitch and the players can speak to them between exercises if they wish.

“It’s being present at the moment when the action actually happened, so I can see how they behave in certain circumstances here in training and also in matches,” explains Filipa Jones, who is the B team’s sports psychologist and is observing training as we speak.

“This (being present) is very important because I talk with them, I hear the perception they have about something that happened to them, I ask about the internal impact that this has, but I also see that happening, and sometimes the behaviour doesn’t match with the things they think.

Filipa Jones, one of the Benfica sports psychologists, watches training (Photo courtesy of Benfica)

“Also, it’s important for them to deal with me here in the field because psychology here is very natural. For example, sometimes we don’t have to go inside, we can (also) talk after training. Sometimes they drink water, come over and say, ‘Did you see that?’ Sometimes they ask for advice, ‘How can I be better prepared to deal with these circumstances?’”

Mentally, there is so much for academy footballers to deal with on their journey, especially at a club like Benfica, where the competition is so fierce — some age groups have as many as 40 players — and the expectations are so high from the moment you pull on the shirt.

The physical side is interesting to explore, too, especially as Benfica’s strategy is to play almost all of their age groups up a year to make matches more competitive. Some players are clearly more suited to that than others — it is remarkable to see the disparity in size within Benfica’s under-15 squad when they sit down for dinner in the canteen.

“Between under-13 and under-15, sometimes we have four or five years in distance between the chronological age and the biological age,” Magalhaes explains. “So you have player A and player B both 14 years of age. But player A has a biological age of 16 years, and player B has the biological age of 12.

“For example, Bernardo Silva was a wonderful player at under-9, 10 and 11 — it was like Superman playing. His high technical level and his decision-making, it was… like a professional. Then he had some problems: he was a skinny guy, a small guy, and it was difficult for him to play under-14, 15, 16 and 17. So it’s our obligation to have a good environment to develop that kind of talented player.

“(Joao) Felix had the same problem. And Antonio Silva was the same — in under-15s, sometimes he played in our under-14 teams because he didn’t have the capacity to play regularly in under-15s.”

Joao Felix made an immediate impact after breaking into the Benfica first team in 2018 (Photo: PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA/AFP via Getty Images)

The skill is knowing where and when to make allowances, in some instances delaying decisions on a young player to give them time to develop other attributes. In the case of Ruben Dias — and this will come as a surprise to many — his technical level was lower than a lot of his team-mates during his early teenage years. But the academy staff valued other traits that were too good to ignore.

“You see the way he communicated with his team-mates; he was like a general, like a leader. Everyone paid attention to him,” Magalhaes says. “When we spoke to our scouting department about Ruben, some people thought, ‘Why Ruben? We have better centre-backs’. But we didn’t have centre-backs with those characteristics.

“The defensive level was high, but the communication and the charisma, and the way that he talked to the team, it was different in comparison to the others.”

Francisco Machado steps away from his team-mates who are enjoying a barbecue in February — a team-building exercise rather than a sign that summer has come early in Portugal — to talk about his experience as a young player at Benfica.

“I play left-back,” Machado says. “In my position, because of my characteristics, I think I am a similar player to (Oleksandr) Zinchenko. Even (Alex) Grimaldo, I like him a lot.”

Born in 2005, Machado is a Portugal under-17 international with a bright future. If he plays as well as he talks — he is an erudite and affable young man whose English is exceptional — Benfica have got another Cancelo on their hands.

“Benfica first invited me to come here when I was 12 years old,” Machado explains. “But with my parents, we thought it was too early. I think that was a great decision. Benfica can give all the conditions to even the youngest guys, but it’s important to come here with a little bit of responsibility and to be conscious of what you’re going to find here.

“When I came here I was 14. I thought it was going to be very hard, but I made friends in two or three weeks. All the guys are excellent and we also have professionals that are here 24 hours a day and can explain everything we want to know.”

Francisco Machado, born in 2005, could be the next precocious talent to emerge from the famed Benfica academy (Photo courtesy of Benfica)

Machado is from Coimbra, which is 200km north of Lisbon. To put it another way, he is a long way from home. Machado gives a thoughtful response when asked how hard it is to leave your family at such a young age. “Not just your parents, but also friends,” he says.

“We see a lot of our friends going out (now), starting to hang out with other people, then when we go there we try to be with them but it’s been months. The conversations, initially, are a little bit difficult. But I think it’s important for us, even if we are far away, to maintain a group of friends because when we need them, the real ones will be there.”

Machado’s dream, he says, is to play for Benfica’s A team. “It’s the dream of all the guys that are here, but we know that it’s very difficult.”

He looks over his shoulder at his team-mates in the under-19 squad. “In a group like we are here, 23 or 24, if three, four, five at the maximum reach the first team, it’s very, very good — and rare. But we have to believe in ourselves because if we don’t believe, no one will.”

Those words resonate when you look around at the young faces enjoying themselves and think about what the future holds. There are so many boys in Benfica’s academy — around 80 have signed professional contracts — that it’s impossible not to think about the race to the top and how only a tiny percentage will get there.

An under-19s training session, featuring the eight mini-goals drill described earlier in the piece (Photo: The Athletic)

“All the way through the journey we feel responsible and aware that a lot of them won’t make it,” Marques says. “That is the reality and we don’t hide that side of things, because I think it’s also important for the ones that stay, and every year progress one more step, to understand that this can maybe end at any moment.

“So there is a responsibility for the development to raise them as a child, as young boys, but also on the transition when they leave. It can be a really blunt moment: the realisation that the dream of playing for Benfica has ended.”

Some of the released players will drift away from the game, while others end up finding a club elsewhere in Portugal (27 academy graduates have played for the B team this season, gaining experience of professional football in the process). Then there are those who re-train to take up another position at the club, from physiotherapists and nutritionists to psychologists and coaches.

Pedro Torrado looks out from one of the dugouts by the side of an artificial pitch in Lisbon, where two under-10 players are competing in a one-v-one duel under the floodlights and in the shadow of the Estadio da Luz.

“I think most important is what my career in youth football gave me,” Torrado says. “Maybe I am here because of Benfica’s education process.”

Torrado is a former Benfica academy player who became a coach. A decade or so ago, Cancelo and Bernardo Silva were in the same youth team as him, but their careers went in one direction and his in another. Torrado was released by Benfica and needed to rethink what to do next with his life. He ended up finding the answer close to home.

“Coaching is really a passion,” says Torrado, who is in charge of Benfica’s under-12s. “I really enjoy this kind of work, especially in these ages. I love to see how they develop, how they grow, what they need to do to be better.”

Pedro Torrado, who played alongside Joao Cancelo and Bernardo Silva in Benfica’s youth teams, is now an under-12 coach at the Lisbon club (Photo courtesy of Benfica)

Benfica’s training methodology looks very different in the younger age groups. The focus is on individual behaviour – ball mastery and one-v-one ability in particular – rather than teamwork.

It is also not all about football.

“The kids have dance (lessons),” Torrado says. “Because at this moment we are seeing one-v-one ability here. What is the most important factor in these kinds of situations? For us, it’s not decision-making. For us, it’s the quality of movement.

“You can do the dribbles that Bernardo Silva does, but you cannot do it in the way that he does because of the quality of the movement that he has. And, for us, dance is a programme that gives them that rhythm and fluidity.”

The whole pitch is a hub of activity now. A game is taking place to our right, there is a dribbling and shooting practice going on to the left and the small group of boys who seem to have been taking one another on forever are still going at it in front of us.

Torrado looks across at the stadium and back at the boys.

“It’s great that they can see the future,” he says. “It’s our mission to develop the players that can be here. It’s a hard process, we know. Maybe one of a thousand guys will be there in the long term. But we give them the trust and the confidence that it’s possible.”

(Top photo: Patricia De Melo Moreira /AFP via Getty Images; design: Samuel Richardson)