Luís Castro: the coach who conquered youth football with Benfica, now impressing in France

Promising young manager Luís Castro left Benfica under somewhat of a cloud at the end of last season, having been relieved of his duties with the club’s B team when he expected to continue.

Despite his achievements with Benfica’s youth sides, including an historic victory in the UEFA Youth League in 2022 and subsequent U20 Intercontinental Cup, Castro was dismissed after just one season in charge of Benfica B in Liga Portugal 2.

After three-and-a-half years with the Eagles, the 43-year-old decided his fresh start would entail another adventure abroad. In September there was a call from French second-tier strugglers Dunkerque, with Castro accepting the challenge of working with one of the smallest clubs in Ligue 2.

Nicknamed ‘Les Martimes’ (the Seasiders) due to their location on the north coast of France, Dunkerque have never been in the French top flight and have spent much of their history in the lower leagues. Promotion to Ligue 2 last season from the Championnat National presented the club with a clear objective: avoid relegation.

One win from their opening seven matches this season was an ominous start in their new surroundings and manager Didier Chabert was ditched with the team in 17th place. Castro arrived in late September to fill the vacancy, in what was a lowkey appointment of a relative unknown outside Portugal.

“What was the objective? I was asked to keep the team up,” Castro told O Jogo earlier this week. “And change the team’s way of playing, because it was more defensive, they didn’t have much of the ball. I was asked to change the idea of ​​the game and, knowing my profile, to promote young players.”

Summer takeover

The decision to hire Castro was made in-part by former Senegal international striker Demba Ba, who was part of a technical team advising the takeover of Dunkerque in the summer by Turkish owner Yuksel Yildirim, also boss of Samsunspor in his home country.

“The person in charge of the project was a great player, Demba Ba, who played for Chelsea,” Castro says. “And [Ba] believes that football should be a sport of pleasure, he likes offensive football, teams that attack and he also believes that this is a way of bringing more people to the stadium, of giving more satisfaction to those who watch the games. Also, to attract and promote young talents, it is important to play good football because the speed of evolution is greater and they are seen more.”

It is an exciting ambition for a club whose modest Stade Marcel-Tribut holds less than 5,000 spectators, but the reality of the job at hand was quickly apparent as Castro suffered four straight defeats after taking the role. Dunkerque sunk deep into relegation trouble, but the Portuguese retained belief in his ideas.

“I always felt the players believed, but I always trusted that the December break would be decisive for us, to stop, not have the pressure of playing and have time to work. When I first arrived, there was no time for anything and we had lots of defeats. I thought this break would be beneficial for us in terms of work and mentally, and this turning point really happened.”

Castro’s words are backed up by the statistics. Dunkerque have been outstanding in 2024, with their ten outings in the league yielding seven wins, three draws and zero losses. Indeed, the team are not only the best-form side in Ligue 2, their record is the best in the country including the top flight, leading them to rise to 14th place in the standings.

“They look at us differently now”

Asked how he has overseen such a drastic change in results, Castro says: “We won over the players little by little. They really liked the training methodology and the way of working, but it took them some time to get the idea of ​​training and playing. Then, in the January market, we were very intelligent in the way we acted, we looked for players who weren’t even starters in the teams where they were in the second division. All in all, the team is now more solid and more competent.

“It’s a big surprise for everyone here, especially for a club that came from the 3rd division and which in the last 20 years has only been in Ligue 2 twice. Also because of the budget. There are teams [in Ligue 2] that have higher budgets than the rest of Portuguese League outside the main four clubs. I’m not going to say it is a miracle, but it’s something out of the ordinary considering the budgets of the teams we face.”

For Castro, who began his coaching career in his early 20s with jobs in the youth ranks of Vizela, Moreirense, Al Nassr and Vitória Guimarães, the progress made represents another step in his journey as a manager. A brief stint in Greece with Panetolikos in 2019 was his only previous senior role, but his reputation is being enhanced in Nord.

“Many people here have already looked at the standings and seen we are three points off mid-table and six points off the play-offs, but we have to remain humble. We played away [and won] against Paris FC, who spent €2m on a player. We beat Troyes who spent €3.5m on a defender. And that’s before talking about the salaries they pay! Our aim still has to be survival.

“But I feel like they look at the club differently and also at me. France is one of the five big football countries, it’s not easy for a foreign coach to get here, but when you do you have to show why.

“Fortunately for me, that doubt has now passed and in relation to the team, both the opponents and the media now look at us differently.”

By @SeanGillen9