Hugo Almeida announced his arrival on the European stage this season in sublime style. His eight goals in qualifying propelled Portugal to a place in the UEFA Under-21 Championship while for his club side, FC Porto, he was turning heads in the UEFA Champions League. There was no doubting this young striker's pedigree when he struck a blistering free-kick past Júlio César from 33 metres against FC Internazionale Milano in November. The ball clipped the underside of the crossbar but it was still rising as it hit the back of the net.
Almeida's thunderous left foot is fast gaining him a glowing reputation across Europe. Tall and strong, his powerful aerial game is also a real threat to opposition defences, and could prove a telling factor for Portugal this summer. With the tournament based in and around his hometown of Povoa do Varzim and his adopted city of Porto, this local lad is looking forward to putting on a show. "It's a big joy being from Porto and playing here," he said. "It will also be very important to have the support of the fans behind us. It will be very positive for us to play in front of full stadiums and big crowds. It is something all the players are looking forward to."
Almeida came through the youth ranks at Porto and enjoyed a first full season with the club this year following loan spells at Boavista FC and UD Leiria. He is softly spoken, and shuns the media glare, but that is becoming increasingly difficult as the goals keep flowing, particularly in this exciting, attack-minded Under-21 side. "It's quite easy to score goals when you play for a fantastic team with fantastic players," said Almeida, who recently extended his contract with the Portuguese champions until 2010. "It's good for me obviously to score them but the most important thing is to help out the team."
And he has been doing just that in a side bursting with talent. Ricardo Quaresma, João Moutinho, Manuel Fernandes and Raúl Meireles were all in brilliant form as Portugal qualified with the only perfect record of ten wins from ten games. Almeida plays alongside Quaresma and Meireles at Porto, building an understanding that has blossomed for the Under-21s. "We know each other very well and each others' playing styles," Almeida said. "We work together each day and that's a great help to us when we play for the national side."
Portugal's run to the final of UEFA EURO 2004™ set a high example for the Under-21s to follow, but Almeida believes it is best not to draw comparisons. "I can't say if we're going to do better or worse than Portugal did during EURO, but obviously we are one of the favourites and people are hoping for us to do well."
As expectations rise so too does the pressure, but Almeida is confident he can keep a perspective on things. He likes to spend time in the old part of the city, Ribeira, where, he says, "it is possible to escape and stop thinking about football for a while". Anyone who visited Portugal during UEFA EURO 2004™ though, will agree that it's not just the place that makes Porto and the surrounding region so special. "It's mainly about the people," Almeida says. "The people from around here are very friendly." A few more goals this summer will broaden the smiles on their faces still further.
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