“Penalties are not a matter of luck. They’re a matter of competence.” This comment by Hélio Sousa may have been specifically related to the shoot-out victory over Spain, but his words could easily be diverted into an abbreviated description of his professional credo. The Portugal coach is a firm believer that talent needs to be guided through channels of pragmatism. “His demanding nature is what took us so far,” admitted his captain in Azerbaijan, Diogo Queirós. “He sometimes loses his voice ...”
Hélio the coach holds a mirror to Hélio the man and Hélio the player. The name of Hélio Filipe Dias de Sousa first appeared on team sheets at Vitória FC when he joined the club as a 12-year-old in 1981. It last appeared 24 years later. Career statistics show that he made a record 424 appearances in midfield for the Setúbal club. More importantly, the numbers provide an illustration of loyalty and firm constancy through periods of joy and adversity. His 18 years in the first team stitched together a rich weave of relegations and promotions, which served to shape attitudes and philosophies while absorbing lessons from a diversity of coaches.
The pathway continued straight into coaching. At Vitória, of course. There then followed a spell at Sporting Clube da Covilhã before he joined the national association’s youth coaching team in 2010. All along, he remained faithful to his principles. “A coach always tries to pass on his experience to young players who are trying to achieve the dream of becoming professionals in a tough sport like football. One of the important lessons for young lads is that for every player that made it, there were others who struggled at professional level.”
Like Santi Denia, his rival in the Baku final, he is a firm advocate of such humility allied with special competences. “We have a demanding profile for each playing position,” he explains. “This is based on technical, tactical and mental questions. At the Portuguese FA, it is very important to assess how players read the game.
With the best teams, tactical developments have reduced the space that’s available, and players have to be able to think and run faster. That has become the most important factor in player development.”
Preparations for Baku began with a three-day training camp and a tournament in England after the Elite Round. Then nine training get-togethers between 25 April and the tournament kick-off, each of them featuring rehearsals of penalties and the mechanisms of set plays – with emphasis on the quality of delivery in attacking situations.
The reward for the training-ground work was, he explained, “some almost perfect games. We were stamping a Portuguese identity on matches – being strong defensively, pressurising opponents, creating a lot of chances and scoring goals. My players were positive. They showed their qualities and demonstrated that we have a playing philosophy – that's the kind of Portugal footballer we want.”
The outcome, however, represented a test of Hélio’s composure. As coach of Portugal Under-19s, he had lost 1-0 to Germany in the 2014 European final. With essentially the same group in New Zealand for the FIFA U-20 World Cup, a rampant quarter-final performance against Brazil ultimately yielded no goals and a 4-2 shoot-out defeat. As the shoot-out unfolded in Baku, he might have been excused some surreptitious nail-biting. But, to his satisfaction, the Portugal players endorsed his belief that penalties are a question of competence.