There is a quiet ambition at Benfica to build a team of academy graduates capable of winning the Champions League. This is a pipe dream, as their best talents are soon sold for exorbitant prices. The latest to enter this category is Rúben Dias, who returns to Portugal on Saturday in the hope of fulfilling the ambition of a club that nominated him as future captain as a teenager.
Chelsea are opposed to Dias completing his first year at City as European champion and partially realizing his former club’s ambition, alongside Benfica graduates Ederson, João Cancelo and Bernardo Silva. Some thought his £ 63million move to England was a gamble, but Dias has proven to be one of the best center-backs in the world winning the Premier League and the Carabao Cup, not to mention the personal reward of the Male Football Writers’ Player of the Year.
Benfica signed Dias at the age of 11 after impressing the coaches in a game against the club. It was not his natural ability that caught their attention but his leadership skills and they thought they could turn him into a great player. Dias was considered an average talent, but his communication on the pitch would help him grow into a club and an international captain.
Dias progressed through the academy, destined for leadership, becoming club and country captain in his youth. His organizational skills were seen at City, where he helped turn a confused defense into England’s best, a sign that his qualities are not based solely on technical ability.
He is expected to join City’s five-man management squad next season. “He doesn’t need the armband to be a captain; everyone recognizes he is the leader on the pitch, ”said Dálcio, his former Under-19 team-mate for Benfica and Portugal. “He was captain for all age groups at Benfica and he will definitely be City captain for the next few years. He was the captain of our national team even though he was younger than most of the team. There you saw what a leader he was. He gets the best out of everyone. “
At City, he has impressed the coaching staff with his dedication in the gym to ensuring he is up to the physical rigors of the Premier League. He settled in quickly, helped by the fact that Benfica and City have similar passing styles throughout their system, which is one reason Pep Guardiola likes club-trained players. Dias has always anticipated what is needed to reach the next level. His first taste of competitive football at Benfica came in the second level of the B team.
“Rúben Dias has worked with several coaches and we are all of the same opinion,” said Benfica B coach Nélson Veríssimo. “In addition to his quality, he had great focus and was always very confident in his goals and the path he wanted to take until reaching the first team. He managed to make this trip, with the help of all these coaches, but above all thanks to his quality, his competence and his hard work.
It wasn’t a meteoric rise to the first team for Dias, who knew he needed to hone his craft in Team B, for whom he played 55 games. Getting up too early could be detrimental, he realized, so he stayed focused, learning against seasoned pros. “He had his chance,” says Veríssimo, “and as everyone expected, due to his quality, commitment and focus, Rúben grabbed it.
Fewer are harder on Dias than the man himself. He barely got it wrong on City, and when he makes a mistake he thinks about how to correct his technique or thought process. “Making a mistake is normal and Rúben knows it, but he reacts by making sure he learns never to make them again,” says Dálcio. “It’s the evolution of Rúben, how he improves as a defender, because he knows that if he makes a mistake the team will concede goals. He doesn’t make too many mistakes, that’s for sure.
Preparations for his big night at Dragão have spanned more than a decade for Dias. He is very cautious when it comes to diet and his Benfica teammates have had to remind him to have interests outside of football.
“He always angered forwards in training because he treated every session like the Champions League final,” said Dálcio. “Most players pay attention to their teammates in training but his tackles were always like in a game. He’s very serious because he knows that’s how you get to the top. Sometimes you have relaxed workouts, but Rúben could never relax – he always has to work hard. If the training session lasted 10 minutes, he would do 20. “
The extra hard yards have been set up for times like Saturday night. If City win, Dias’ success will be celebrated not only in Porto but also in Lisbon.