Portugal have a fine record at youth level, winning the UEFA European Under-17 Championship in 2003, but a third-place finish the following season was to be their last finals appearance for six years.
That run has been ended with their qualification for the 2010 finals in Liechtenstein, and they have been drawn in a tough group with fellow former champions France, Spain and – their first opponents next Tuesday – Switzerland. Former international Rui Bento took over the squad at the start of the season, his first youth coaching job having led the senior teams at Académico de Viseu FC, FC Barreirense, FC Penafiel and Boavista FC, and is delighted to have made the finals.
This is one of the best Under-17 teams we have had in recent years and you can see this from the fact we have made the finals," Bento told UEFA.com. "Their strength is that they play as a team." The draw is tough, he acknowledges. "It is a very strong group, they are good teams," he said. "I believe there will be good games and it will be an experience for the players.
"We have played Switzerland within the last year at U16 level, we won once and lost the other. France are a very strong team with fine and strong players. Two months ago we played them in the Algarve Tournament and we won but they are a good team."
As for their last group game against Spain, Bento added: "It is always special to play our neighbours, we have played them twice – winning one and losing the other. The group is very well balanced, the team are at roughly the same level."
Bento may be in his first youth finals as coach, but the 37-year-old experienced these events as a player, albeit before any of his squad were born, representing Portugal in the 1990 UEFA European U18 Championship. The following year he was part of a famous FIFA U-20 World Cup victory on home soil, winning the final against Brazil in front of 127,000 fans at Lisbon's Estádio da Luz alongside the likes of Luís Figo and Rui Costa – with Roberto Carlos on the losing team.
Reflecting now on the importance of youth tournaments, Bento mused: "The main benefit is that you get confidence for the future." As for his aims as coach, he added: "Every day I work on trying to increase their confidence and try to emphasise to them the importance of playing for the national team at this level.
I like being able to help the players grow as footballers and as men. To try to bring out all their ability."
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