Whenever you launch a grassroots or youth football team, there’s an aspiration that this side will ultimately fulfill its optimal potential.
This isn’t always the case, however, with the Portuguese national side offering a relevant case in point.
Despite the success of Portugal’s youth sides in 1987 and 1991, for example, which even spawned a so-called “golden generation” in the late 90s and early noughties, ‘Os Navegadores’ failed to achieve of note at senior level during this time.
However, the Portuguese finally achieved their first major trophy at Euro 2016, following sustained investment at grassroots level at the nation’s leading clubs. We’ll explore this below, while appraising the structure of the lower leagues in Portugal.
Going Underground – What’s the Structure of Portugal’s Lower Leagues?
Portugal’s national league features 120 clubs in total, split across seven different divisions.
At the head of this pyramid is the Primeira Liga, Liga Portugal 2 and Liga 3, while the bottom of the structure features four divisions of the Campeonato de Portugal (Serie A, B, C and D).
Outside of this there sits a myriad of district leagues, which are operated by 22 standalone associations. This creates a slightly fragmented approach to grassroots development, which mirrors the approach taken by the leading clubs featuring in the Primeira Liga (we’ll touch a little more on this below).
However, the District Leagues represent all corners of Portugal, including clubs from the Madeira and Azores Islands (western, central and eastern groups).
This makes the Portuguese grassroots system accessible to aspiring footballers from across the country, who can compete in well-structured league and cup games throughout the year. What’s more, the winner of each correspondent District Cup (and the runners-up in each league) can participate in the following season’s Portuguese Cup, which is a great opportunity for grassroots players.
The structure of the District Leagues also creates multiple levels for players of different skillsets. For example, Level 5 features elite amateur and pro-national clubs, whereas levels 6, 7 and 8 operate at different and changeable levels of ability.
Grassroots at the Highest Level in Portugal
This structure reflects the increasingly ambitious nature of Portugal’s grassroots system, while this is also matched with investment at the leading clubs in the country.
If we look at the ‘Benfica Campus’, for example, we see that this academy has had two significant makeovers since its opening. These came relatively close together in 2014 and 2019 too, with the facility covering 19 hectares (having initially spanned just 15).
It also features nine pristine pitches, two gyms and 86 living quarters, 56 of which are for academy scholars and designed to help players develop social skills in addition to honing their considerable talents.
This reflects the growing focus on grassroots football at all levels of the Portuguese game, with youth development now a priority for the game’s top clubs. This has translated into huge investment in facilities and coaching, with the wholesale development of players now absolutely key.
This arguably has never been the case in Portugal previously, even when the youth side dominated at world level between 1987 and 1991 (this was more down to the individual and natural talent of the players rather than any concerted coaching effort).
So, while the Portuguese grassroots system may be a little fragmented, it continues to benefit from increased investment and wholesale development of players across the board.