“The Chinese Sports Strategists” on tour – first overseas stop in 2020: Portugal

In China there is an enormous demand for footballing expertise. Whether education or sports departments, universities, professional and amateur clubs or private football academies, they are all looking for suitable partners to help develop China’s youngsters.

Following the success of their work in Changzhou, “The Chinese Sports Strategists” serves as an excellent reference: Potential business partners in China are getting in touch with the project organisers in Changzhou so they can find out about the project. That helps to clear up uncertainties and provide a positive answer to the question: “Does the funding we provide ensure that we get the high-quality, successful service we are promised?” We have been successful in generating further interest in China and will of course report on the outcome of those enquiries in forthcoming entries in this blog.

At this point we’re not looking to rest on our laurels. Quite the contrary: Following an internal analysis, we have decided to explore further afield. Ongoing development, gaining further impressions and exploring new ideas for our football concepts – those are the aims. And all based on the notion of training youngsters efficiently and improving their footballing skills within a short time. To achieve that, we take Europe’s best as our starting point so that we can integrate further knowledge into our way of thinking, way of working.

This strategy led us to Portugal. As current European champions, it would seem that this country is doing plenty of things right when it comes to training its footballers! For decades, clubs such as Benfica, Sporting and Porto have been working with an elite group of trainers. That work has resulted in players such as Figo, Ronaldo (both World Player of the Year), Nani, Joao Felix and others, all of whom played or still play for top clubs. Many successful coaches also have their roots in Portuguese football, e.g. Jose Mourinho, Andre Villas-Boas, Jorge Jesus, Nuno Espirito Santo, Vitor Pereira. They and many others are working successfully with teams worldwide. So the question is: Has this relatively small country (population: about 10 million) simply been given a huge share of talent or does it apply fundamentally different approaches to the training of its footballers and coaches? Finding the answer to this was an exciting but challenging task. Because if there are such fundamentally different approaches, they certainly won’t be revealed to everyone.

Helped by our coach Marco Antonio Mendes Almeida, who took part in the Changzhou project and was formerly a player with FC Porto and Portugal’s national youth squad, we were able to arrange meetings with Benfica Lisbon and FC Porto, two of Portugal’s top clubs.

For Mark Hellwig, Altin Lala and myself, the three-day trip to Lisbon and Porto began at the end of January. Davide Gomes, responsible for innovation and product development in youth football, met us upon our arrival in Lisbon. We then spent half a day soaking up impressive insights that would have been difficult to imagine beforehand. Benfica Academy was recently voted the best in the world at the Globe Soccer Awards in Dubai and we very quickly realised the reasons for that eminent distinction. Of course, discretion prevents us from going into details about the presentation in this blog. But we can say this: The behaviour, friendliness, hospitality and devotion of the people working there – throughout our visit, right up until the final handshake upon our farewell – made a deep impression on us. We met many people during our visit, and all of them conveyed the feeling that the key to success is to be found in benevolence. A lasting impression.

The next day we visited another top-notch club: FC Porto – twice winners of the Champions League and the Euro League, and reigning champions of the Youth Champions League. We were very much looking forward to this meeting. The number one question for us was whether, and to what extent, the work of the world-famous Dragon Force Academy differed from that of its rivals in Lisbon? Indeed: How does a city with fewer than 250,000 inhabitants play such a significant role in world football? This must be a very special key to success.

Upon arrival in the morning, we were met by Alexandre Pinto da Costa, the son of the club’s long-serving president, Jorge Nuno Pinto da Costa, who has guided the club since 1982 and is therefore the person primarily responsible for its fate during this successful period. Amazing conversations followed, which included numerous anecdotes and stories. It gradually became clear to us that FC Porto is different. The people in this city, this region, are different. They have to be. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have had the slightest chance of surviving. We obtained remarkable insights into their work, methodology, philosophy and mentality. Here again, we were profoundly impressed, which was not really surprising.

To sum up, “The Chinese Sports Strategists” gained insights into the working methods of two of Europe’s – indeed, the world’s – most successful training centres. We met outstanding people who talked about more than just concepts. More, because it was obvious just how closely connected they were with the content of those concepts. How proud they were to be on the staff of these great clubs, to represent them and to share their knowledge with others. However, one crucial difference was patently clear: Benfica presented itself as a systematically structured global club. The well-functioning marketing apparatus was visible everywhere. FC Porto, too, is without doubt an utterly professional operation – to an extent that we hadn’t imagined before making this trip – with structures from which many German Bundesliga clubs could learn a thing or two. However, Porto had a different character to that of Benfica. A different seriousness. An ambition that has grown out of the way they feel they are disregarded and the rivalry with the great club from the capital. An exciting observation from the neutral position we still occupy.

We concluded our trip in Portuguese fashion, in a modest restaurant in the heart of Lisbon. “A Obra” might be small (space for only 20 guests), but the quality is incredible. We can draw a parallel here: small country, brilliant football. Our wine expert, Altin, had chosen an excellent bottle to accompany the food and the conversation as we summed up our experiences gained from a couple of days in Portugal. We had enjoyed an intimate exchange with the persons responsible for Portugal’s two most successful clubs. Both showed great interest in a collaboration with respect to the Chinese projects. We had good feedback from them, too, because we had also been able to impress them with our content and leave behind a good overall picture of our work. So doors have been opened. Whether and when we can go through those doors depends on us – and we shall be delighted to keep our readers up to date.

Bye for now
Nek