Andre Silva's meteoric rise from roller hockey star to Portugal's top prospect
Finding a quality centre-forward has been a huge problem for Portugal in recent years. Indeed, long gone are the days of Pauleta and Nuno Gomes.
At Euro 2016, the void was so big that Fernando Santos opted to completely change the tactical system, switching from a 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2 with Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani playing centrally. Eder was the only pure striker taken to France, and while the ex-Swansea City man came off the bench to score the sensational winner against hosts France in the final, he is definitely not seen as a long-term solution.
Which is why the rapid emergence of Porto striker Andre Silva is met with such excitement throughout the country. The 20-year-old made his Porto senior-team debut in January and scored his first Primeira Liga goal in a 4-0 win over Boavista in May. Silva is already considered a very top prospect and the start of the new season has gone extremely well for him. He was brilliant in preseason, averaging a goal per game, and continued in the same fashion when the real matches started.
Against Rio Ave, the youngster missed a penalty but was quick enough to put the rebound into the net. Porto coach Nuno didn't change his penalty taker for the 1-1 draw against Roma last week, and Silva duly converted the spot kick on his Champions League debut. On Saturday, he scored a late winner versus Estoril with a brilliant glancing header.
The hype is quite remarkable. Silva had a contract with a release clause of €25 million to keep him at Porto until 2019, but the club were worried that it was way too low. The striker signed an improved contract until 2021 on Sunday, with the clause now standing at €60m. If hopes are fulfilled, such a sum won't sound exaggerated in the future, but let us not get carried away.
Portugal have Salgueiros youth coach Rafael Santos to thank for the new prodigy. As a kid, Silva was not only good at football, he also excelled at the obscure game of roller hockey. The dilemma was rather tough for him, but the coach convinced him to stick to a more popular sport. The club didn't want to lose their most promising protege, either; Silva's talent stood out, as did his character.
"He always wanted to train, and I had to send him into the showers," recalled Alexandre Silva, another youth coach.
Andre was not considered a striker during his time at Salgueiros. He featured on the wings at times, but was mostly used as a playmaker responsible for dictating the tempo, garnering him the nickname "Deco" in reference to Salgueiros's biggest star, who wore the shirt before moving on to Porto, Barcelona and Chelsea.
That made Silva proud, but he loved to score too. The turning point occurred in 2010, when the 15-year-old talent netted a surprising winner against Porto. The Dragons' scouts took notice and promptly signed the kid for a laughable fee of €1,000. Porto basically got their man for free.
At his new club, Silva started out as a striker and gradually improved to emerge with the skills of a penalty area predator. He has always been technically sound and quick, but he had to learn the tactical aspects of the game and develop a habit of being in the right place at the right time. Andre scored five goals at the European Under-19 Championships in 2014 as Portugal reached the final, and netted four times at the U20 World Cup last summer before missing a crucial penalty in the quarterfinal shootout against Brazil.
That misfortune didn't have a negative impact on Silva's self confidence. He started last season's domestic campaign by scoring eight goals for the reserve team in the second division by September, which in turn prompted then coach Julen Lopetegui to call him up to the senior squad and give him a debut in a December Cup fixture. Lopetegui was eventually fired in January, and his replacement, Jose Peseiro, provided the youngster with even more opportunities to prove himself.
And yet, even after Silva scored in the derby against Boavista towards the end of the season, it was quite surprising to see him in the starting lineup in the Cup final a week later. It was a big gamble by Peseiro and it paid off handsomely. Braga took a 2-0 lead, but Silva netted Porto's first goal and then produced an incredible bicycle kick equaliser in injury time. The nation sat and took notice. A star was born.
Porto might have lost the final on penalties and ended the season empty handed, but Silva's achievement was still widely celebrated. His former coach Rafael Santos wrote an impassioned message to Andre on Facebook: "Carry on with the spirit that you have always had. You will have a brilliant career."
Some demanded Silva be taken to the Euros, even though it was premature in the extreme after just one good game. Fernando Santos had to explain his decision to leave the striker at home.
"I went to see the game between Porto and Sporting, but Silva only played the last five minutes," he said. Indeed, it made little sense to call up a youngster who made only five starts for his club. Portugal won the tournament without him and it was obvious that the coach made the right choice.
Now that the national team is beginning preparations for World Cup qualifiers, though, it is crystal clear that Silva must be part of the plan. But will he be able to keep up the momentum? That is the biggest question, and the insane amount of headlines hailing his precocious talent could be damaging to put it mildly. Nuno, who took over from Peseiro in the summer, must work hard to keep the youngster's feet on the ground. If he loses touch with reality, Silva could be lost before he really makes his mark.
In the meantime, all eyes are on Silva as Porto visit Roma in the return leg of the crucial Champions League playoffs on Tuesday. The 1-1 draw in Portugal was a disappointing result last week, as it leaves the Dragons in grave danger of missing out on group stage qualification for the first time since 2010. Silva will have to be on fire in order to prevent that from happening.
Michael Yokhin is ESPN FC's European football writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Yokhin