sexta-feira, 20 de abril de 2018

Once upon a time...

This post intends to describe my view on the beginning and the growth of the women's national team (WNT) in Portugal. At least I’ll try, as this will be my first ever post written in English. You may be wondering I would why I chose to do so now. Think about this post as a tribute to all the former players that fought for better working conditions, year after year, to take the national team where it is now. Also, in my humble opinion, former players deserve recognition for their efforts.
Let's begin!
The first match ever played was held in France and the result was a goalless draw. The kick off was in October 24, 1981 which means this story is not that old. However it shows that the WNT took 36 years to qualify for a major competition (EURO 2017, The Netherlands).
In this first decade, the WNT played a total of 8 matches (between 1981 and 1983). Women's football was growing quickly in Europe and the results showed that the Portuguese WNT was in the right path in order to become a strong team in Europe. I watched my first match of the WNT in Lisbon, December 4, 1982. I was 11 years old at the time and I was already playing football in a neighbourhood team. I remember thinking “one day I want to represent my country”.
But suddenly and without any warning, the Portuguese FA decided to shut down the WNT’s activities. It was a catastrophic decision as we will see further on. The strangest thing about this decision is that the Portuguese FA’s president at that time was a member of the UEFA Women's Football Committee. No one understood that decision which postponed the evolution of women’s football in Portugal for some long. The players’ dreams were stopped but they still kept playing football in their clubs despite not having any hope of representing their national team again.
Portuguese players had to wait ten (10!!) years for their dreams to become true again. In 1993, by the hand of Prof. Carlos Queiróz, the Portuguese FA began (for the second time) the WNT activities. The chosen head coach was Mr. António Simões, one of the best Portuguese players ever, part of the magical team of SL Benfica and national team that took part of 1966 World Cup.

Portuguese newspaper - roster for the first training camp (1993)
66 players were called for the first training camp, in September 1993. Since Mr. Simões and his staff didn't have time to watch every player in action the decision to choose the players had been delegated to the clubs’ coaches.
In that first training camp the players were separated in different teams and played all against all. It was the way found by the Portuguese coaching staff to reduce that huge group into a smaller one.

For the second training camp only 35 players were called. The aim was to find the best 25 players to start the qualification for the EURO 1995 (Germany).
However just before that, the WNT had a friendly match against the under 20 WNT from Sweden, in Faro (Algarve, Portugal). It was the first match in 10 years. The players were nervous and felt the weight of the national shirt but also they felt tremendously proud when the national anthem started. It was a proud moment shared even by the spectators in the stadium, many of them players themselves. I was one of them. I was not chosen for the last 25 group of players. I recognise I was very disappointed that day but that was not important comparing to the emotion of watching the national team playing. However that dream did come true. I would have the chance to represent my country. It was finally my responsibility to show to the national coaches that I deserved my chance.
The result was not what we had wished for (Portugal lost 0-3) but it allowed us to understand that those 10 years without competition had been our own worst enemy.

Portuguese newspaper - reference to the first win of the WNT (1994)
The first official match after the return or the team was against France, in Faro, on December 11, 1993. I wasn't call up, once again, but I did go to Algarve to watch the match. Portugal lost despite having played a very good match. If one didn’t know the story, nobody would say that that was the team’s first match in 10 years.
The Portuguese WNT lost the following 4 matches. We were building up a new team; the gap between other national teams across Europe and ours was huge. However, the Portuguese players never gave up and continuously chased a victory. The objectives were defined match after match. The first was to score a goal (it happened against Italy in March, 1994).
The first win occurred in the 1º edition of the Algarve Cup back in 1994, against Finland after losing to USA and Sweden in the group stage.
In that qualifying group for the EURO 1995, Portugal achieved three victories: two against Scotland and the other against Italy in the away match. It was a scandal for the Italians.
The team was growing but always had to face many difficulties. The training camps weren't held often and sometimes the players would go more than 6 months without getting back together. This didn’t allow the team to grow consistently. I don’t know if you ever felt that you want to do more but your body just doesn't obey your orders. Unfortunately, I felt that in more matches than I wanted to. The Portuguese team wasn’t able to play for 90 minutes. Our physical condition was enough for domestic competitions but it was very far from the demands of international matches. These were frustrating times but players’ thoughts were always "we must improve; we need to show that we can beat some of the better teams". After all, what matters is the final result!
Until the end of the 1990-1999 decade, Portugal was able to qualify for the playoff matches regarding the EURO 1997 (Norway). It was an important achievement for women’s football in Portugal. We didn’t qualify for the competition (Denmark went through) and had to wait until 2017 for that to happen, twenty years later. The seeds took 20 years to grow! But now there’s no way back! The only way is to move forward and to improve.
In this decade, the Portuguese WNT has played 69 international matches (win: 15; draw: 6; lost: 48). In this period Portugal had 2 head coaches, Mr. António Simões (1993- 1996) e Ms. Graça Simões (1996 - 2000). Both have done their job as best they could with few conditions given to them by the Portuguese FA. But even so we were growing slowly.
The legacy of head coach Graça Simões was taking Portugal to the playoff matches for the EURO 2001 (Germany). But then her work contract wasn't renewed and a new head coach was appointed and started with these two matches, against Italy (Mr. Nuno Cristóvão). Same as in 1996 we didn’t qualify for the competition but we won the home match under adverse weather conditions.
The next decade (2000-2009) should have shown the improvement of the national team but it didn’t. In July 2003 FIFA release the first WNT ranking. Portugal was placed in the 34th place. The work done by head coach Nuno Cristóvão was very good and it was under his advice that the first time under 19 WNT was created. It was a huge conquest for women's football in Portugal. The new generation of players would have the great opportunity to start their international experience much earlier. But, once again, when things were really starting to improve, head coach Nuno Cristóvão left the Portuguese FA, end of the 2003/2004 season. The worst period ever for the WNT was arriving.
PrintSreen FIFA website

The new head coach was Mr. José Augusto (2004-2007) who had been Mr. António Simões teammate in SL Benfica and also in the national team. In that period of time, Portugal dropped from 34th to 47th place! It was a very complicated period and the players’ disappointment was difficult to hide. Those 3 years by Mr. Augusto’s command made the same damages as the 10 years spent without competition. There was again the need to rebuild the national team. If you don’t believe me, just look again at the picture. It took another 10 years to rise to 36th place.
In the period from 2000 to 2009, the WNT played 94 international matches (win: 19; draw: 13; lost: 62), 25 more than in the previous decade.
From 2007 to 2011, Ms. Mónica Jorge was named the new head coach of WNT and she had the huge task to revert the damages done by the previous head coach. She stayed in the job until she was elected to the Portuguese FA board where she is currently the head of women’s football. In the transition period the national team the team was guided by other women’s national teams’ coaches until Mr. Francisco Neto was appointed as new head coach, in February 2014.
Like it or not, it was with Ms. Mónica Jorge in the board of Portuguese FA that the major results and improvements were achieved:
  • Qualification for the under 19 EURO, 2012 (Turkey);
  • Qualification for the under 17 EURO, 2013 (England);
  • Qualification for the EURO 2017 (The Netherlands);
  • 3º place at Algarve Cup 2018 (Portugal);
  • WNT: under 16 (2014) and under 15 (2017);
  • Development of the domestic competitions;
  • Increase in the number of players from every age;
  • Empowering regional associations to the relevance of women's football;
  • New domestic competition – Supertaça (SuperCup) Allianz:
  • New format for domestic youth championships.
I could continue naming what happened since Ms. Jorge is on the job but what I think it is more important to underline that it was because of the huge difficulties she had to face while she was head coach that she knew what she had to do to develop women’s football in Portugal. Of course she didn’t do it all by herself. All the board agreed with the needed changes. And the results are showing, not just with the top team but also with the youth teams.

MJX - data collect from the Portuguese FA website
However, are we really growing consistently and in a sustainable manner or is this just another good phase? No, the top Portuguese WNT is really growing! If you analyse the graphic you can easily realise that we are reducing the percentage of "lost" matches and increasing the "win" matches, especially from the decade 2000-2009 to the current one. Other important data is the increasing of played matches from one decade to the other. In my opinion, along with the improvement in trainning conditions for the WNT’s, this is what is really making a difference and is allowing the Portuguese WNT to grow consistently. From 2000-2009 (94 matches) to 2010-2019 (121) the Portuguese WNT already played more 27 matches than in the previous decade (and it will still increase).
Anyway, the Portuguese FA should get to the next step: empowering the Portuguese clubs so they can offer better conditions to the players. I know we have 2 very big clubs, Sporting CP and SC Braga where the players are professional but that’s not enough. These two teams won’t be able to have all the players so they should find others to continue playing in Portugal. But they will need better conditions to keep growing and improve. Think about the younger players that are starting now and have the opportunity to play for the youth national teams. If I was one of them I would demand better conditions to my club. I would want to keep improving my skills and competency. But for that to happen I can’t only practice 3 times a week and sometimes even have to share the pitch with other club teams! I would need other kind of guidance because even the small details make a difference in being a good or being a great player.
I think this is going to be the next challenge for the Portuguese FA, for the regional associations and for the clubs: how can we improve the quality and competitiveness of the major domestic competitions (Allianz League, Portuguese Cup and SuperCup) so that our WNTs can achieve better results, year after year?
Both things are related!!
I'm quite sure that we are on the right path. I believe that we won’t turn back and go down all the way, once again.

End of story!

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