As featured in The Guardian:

‘Effort, Dedication, Devotion, Glory’ in that order.

Those are the first and last words the young hopefuls see as they enter and leave Sporting Clube de Portugal’s Academy.I had been at Benfica’s 15,000,000 € complex the night before and the 0,40 € priced coffee served by a bronzed pensioner, wearing a permanent scowl, in the clubhouse gave a nod towards the contrasting values that were in place here at the rural Alcochete complex. Modest with a bucolic setting, the Academia was used as the home training ground by the Portugal national team during Euro 2004, and various European clubs choose to come here for gruelling pre-season camps. Without extravagances; this was a place for football.

As coaches gathered around the diminutive portable TV, watching Primeira Liga highlights whilst discussing what the evening had in store, I couldn’t help but daydream about the calibre of players that had walked these corridors and slept in the rooms next door, back when they owned nothing more than a pocket full of ambition.

Sporting are the only club in the world to have produced two different Balon d’Or winners and the accomplishments of both Luis Figo and five-time-winner Cristiano Ronaldo are celebrated with signed pictures and murals plastered all around the facilities.

“Listen to me, Messi is a freak, a one off, and clearly the best ever, but what Cristiano has done to be anywhere near his levels speak volumes about the man. He came here from an island with nothing. A skinny boy with many bad habits who liked to run at defenders, and now he is a complete player. A beast.” Goalkeeper coordinator Miguel Miranda continued “We use him as an example in every room here; from the gymnasium, to the psychology classrooms and the dressing rooms. He sacrificed himself to get everything he has now.”

Out across the six pitches, sessions are led by Sports Graduates; every single member of the coaching staff holds a degree in Sports Science and there isn’t an ex-professional with “old school habits” in sight.

Wandering around whilst talking to Miranda, I noticed a common occurrence as the ball was continuously zipped out to wingers who were encouraged to drive at isolated full backs in every exercise I laid my eyes upon.

“Cristiano, Figo, Nani, Quaresma… we’ve always specialised on wingers here. If you look at each coach, they limit touches for central players who are encouraged to spread the ball wide into wingers, who have unlimited touches to create chances from wide”. Sporting thrive for ‘free-range players, not battery-caged ones’.Intrigued and, after pressing for further insight, I was told that whilst there are specialists for each position at the club, the country’s top wingers make their way to Alcochete as the academy churns them out on a regular basis.

“10 of our boys made up the Portuguese 23-man-squad that won the 2016 European Championship. Of the eight from here who started in the final, five are attackers. The other two came on as wingers!” teary-eyed and full of pride, Miranda continued “We like the boys to be free to express themselves on the pitch. We love creative kids.”

Inaugurating the centre in 2002, The Leões were the first club in Portugal to construct an Academy complex and like both Benfica and FC Porto, there is a 4-3-3 template that runs through the veins of the youth system here. Yet, for each coach there are scheduled ‘field trips’ to differing football cultures, visiting top academies such as FC Barcelona’s La Masia, Ajax’s De Toekomst as well as the South American hotbeds in order to see how things are done elsewhere and absorb knowledge from varying philosophies and beliefs from around the world.

After witnessing an under-16 player fail to control a 20-yard pass for the third time in a row just minutes after beating three opponents and finishing from 25-yards, I quipped “I can’t decide whether he’s the best or worst player I’ve ever seen”. With a cutting frown, Miranda responded: “He’s gone.” followed by “Look at his skin. Look at his legs. He’s finished”

My doubts on the coordinator’s seriousness were justified; after all this was a man who set me up in a prank where the Academy’s security guard began to escort me out of the facility just minutes after my arrival, before cracking jokes all afternoon.

Confused silence was met by his assurance: “I’m serious. We do physical examinations on the boys every three months. This boy isn’t at the levels he needs to be and he’s finished maturing.” My muteness remained.

“We check players’ skin for acne, knees and other joints for growth and we even check the genitalia of our academy players for maturity signs.”

He continued “If a player isn’t performing at the standard we require for their age and their body has stopped developing then we will release them. Physically, we prefer skinny, awkward teens to the finished product at 15. Again, here, Cristiano is the perfect example.” Miranda continued “We don’t want them to be professional at 14. We want them to be professional at 20.”Having opened the youth football department in 1988, Aurélio Pereira went onto discover the likes of Luis Figo, Paulo Futre, Simão Sabrosa, João Moutinho, Cedric, Ricardo Quaresma and Nani amongst an endless list of others, but it’s the national team’s all-time top goal-scorer who is the real darling and the 70-year-old’s eyes lit up when he reminisced of how Ronaldo would tie weights to his legs and race passing traffic in the streets outside in order to gain strength and speed.

Pereira advances in depth: “That gives us an idea of what these lads go through. As soon as we make contact with a player coming from far away, our objective focuses on bringing him over to the Sporting Academy. We are responsible for a massive change in the lives of young players who could become greats one day.”

Only Ajax, Partizan Belgrade and Dinamo Zagreb have more academy students playing top-flight football across the continent and Sporting insist that the development of people plays a pivotal role with customized training plans given out to individuals which include tailored gym-work as well as on-pitch matters. “We find the strong and weak points of each individual and change their training to reflect that.”

Having moved from Cheltenham, England to Portugal and sprouted through the Sporting youth system, after his mother took a job running the hospitality programme for the 2004 European Championships, Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Eric Dier spoke to The Guardian on his time in Alcochete: ““It’s a very relaxed approach at Sporting in terms of football,” Dier says. “They pride themselves on bringing you up as a polite and respectful person. They would never get angry with you if you missed a pass but they would do if you were disrespectful to someone. There was no shouting. I hear a lot that that is the case in England.“A good player for them was someone who could understand when they made a mistake and correct it for themselves. When I first came to England to play I saw coaches having a go at players when they made mistakes and they would literally be talking them through the game.

“In Portugal the coach would sit on the bench and not say a word. We’d just play. It was a matter of us making mistakes and learning from them by ourselves. You understand the game a lot better that way. For me, the sign of a bad player is someone who makes the same mistake twice.”

Sporting were the pioneers, the first to make the pathway from youth football to their first team a real priority and Miranda assured me of the focus they place on making sure individuals are happy in their day-to-day life. “Correct diets and sleeping patterns are of high importance here and having the correct lifestyle has an enormous effect on performance. When players perform well on the pitch, they find everything else easier, eventually becoming content with life’s challenges. The development of humans is of great importance!”Cristiano Ronaldo’s success tells its own story, and following a distinguished career on the pitch, the 2000 Balon d’Or winner Luis Figo has gone on to prosper in multiple avenues. Fluent in five languages, the ambassador for the ‘Stop TB Partnership’ in the fight against tuberculosis is also the founder of Network90, a private members’ networking site for the Professional Football Industry and a board member of the Inter Campus charity project run by Internazionale, all besides owning bars and restaurants around the country.

I waved “boa noite” to the still scowling waiter whilst passing a Portugal shirt signed by the 10 ‘Os Aurélios’, who went on to become the European Champions. This isn’t only a breeding ground of serial talent, but those champions who once resided in these halls, plus the extensive list of others plying their trade around the world, are all a testament to the “Effort, Dedication, Devotion, Glory” motto which is instilled here.

Alex Clapham