Sporting’s youth academy has gained a reputation for developing many of Portugal’s most promising young talents, with Luís Figo and Cristiano Ronaldo the most famous examples. Attacking midfielder João Mário appears to be the next one to follow in that tradition.
In the opening months of the 2014/15 season Mário has emerged to become a starter in Sporting’s midfield, he has played regularly in the Champions League and has not looked out of place, and has also received his first caps at full international level for Portugal.
Blessed with technical ability and innate football intelligence, João Mário could just be the No10 that the Seleção has lacked since the departure of Deco in 2010. Although he is still far from the finished article, the young midfielder has demonstrated that he has the talent to develop into an elite player for club and country.
João Mário was born in Porto and joined the academy of the Dragões in 2002, along with his older brother Wilson Eduardo. Two years later, their mother relocated to Lisbon and the brothers also moved south to Sporting’s youth system. Mário steadily moved up the ranks at the club and started making a big name for himself in Portugal’s youth squads, playing for every level from Under-15 to Under-21, amassing 77 appearances in total.
He began training with Sporting’s senior side during the 2011/12 season under the then-manager Domingos Paciência, and made his first appearance in a Europa League match against Lazio. However, he remained primarily with the junior set-up, captaining the club’s U-19 squad which won the national championship that season. In 2012/13, he was promoted to the club’s B-team which plays in Portugal’s second tier.
In January 2014 Sporting and Mário made a decision that would provide an important boost to his development, with a loan to Vitória Setúbal agreed for the second half of the season. It proved to be the challenge he needed. Mário’s talents were now on full display on a bigger stage as he and Vitória thrived in a strong finish to the season. It was enough to catch the attention of Portugal manager Paulo Bento who named him in the provisional squad for the World Cup, although he did not make the final cut.
The following season he was back at the Alvalade. With new Sporting coach Marco Silva beginning with André Martins in the playmaker role, alongside William Carvalho and Adrien Silva, the 21-year-old Mário had to wait for his chance. He got his break when given a start in a Primeira Liga match against Gil Vicente on 21 September. He seized it with both hands, providing two assists in a 4-0 victory.
Mário has been a regular starter for the club ever since, scoring his first goal for Sporting against Marítimo on 26 October. October was a memorable month for Mário, who made his full international debut for Portugal on the 11th, coming on as a late substitute for Cristiano Ronaldo in an international friendly against France, almost immediately winning a penalty.
“Things have happened really quickly and it is incredible to have come on in place of Cristiano [Ronaldo]. I feel very proud and now I will continue to work hard in order to prove that I deserve to stay here. Unfortunately we did not get the win but this was an important moment in my life,” João Mário told the press after his debut.
Strengths, weaknesses and style of play
João Mário is an attack-minded midfielder who is blessed with an impressive range of skills and exceptional vision. He knows how to elude defenders and find open space, and possesses a calm demeanour one would not expect of such a young player, rarely making a poor decision on the pitch. He is not afraid to test the goalkeeper from distance, his delivery is quick and accurate, and he is comfortable passing and shooting with both feet.
Mário’s skillset and excellent reading of the game allows him to pull the strings in midfield and dictate the terms of a match, a quality that sets him apart from some of the high-quality midfielders Portugal have produced of late like João Moutinho and Raul Meireles. These two players formed the backbone of the Portugal midfield under Paulo Bento, but they were not full-fledged playmakers, rather box-to-box midfielders who also tracked back and defended. João Mário, in contrast, tends to sit back and look for an opportunity to break forward and start an attack.
Rui Costa and Deco performed the role of playmaker in the past for Portugal. But since the latter’s retirement from international play in 2010, the Seleção have primarily relied on a trio of box-to-box midfielders for creativity. This worked well for much of the Bento era, but recent performances suggest that Fernando Santos needs to inject some young blood into midfield, and João Mário could just be the solution.
It is very difficult to find a real weakness in his game because he is such an evolved and finely-tuned player. He does not have much aerial ability or a strong physique. This is just not part of his game. Mário is more of a finesse player. He still has to work on his consistency, from match to match and also within games. But this is something likely to come with training and playing time.
Former Sporting and Portugal midfielder Luís Vidigal is certainly excited about the player’s potential, telling Portuguese radio station Rádio Renascença in July: “João Mário is a rare breed in Portuguese football. We are in the presence of one of the best midfielders Portugal has ever produced.”
Name: João Mário Naval da Costa Eduardo
Date of birth: 19 January 1993 (21 years old)
Place of birth: Porto, Portugal
Height: 1.77 m
Weight: 73 Kg
Current club: Sporting Clube de Portugal
Position: Attacking Midfielder
Portugal caps: 2 (0 goals)
By Rui Miguel Martins