Monday 28 November 2022, 05:00

Mentee versus mentor as Costa Rica take on Portugal

  • Costa Rica and Portugal faced each other in a friendly match

  • The coaches of both national teams form a mentor/mentee pairing of FIFA’s Coach Mentorship Programme

  • "Amelia is an exceptionally intelligent person and a fantastic coach"

At first glance, the encounter between the Costa Rica and Portugal women’s national teams seemed like any other friendly. While Costa Rica have already qualified for the FIFA Women’s World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023™, the Portuguese are preparing for February’s play-off tournament and their chance to claim one of three remaining coveted tickets to next year’s World Cup. Look closer, however, and it becomes clear that this is a very special match indeed. Portugal’s Francisco Neto and his Costa Rican counterpart Amelia Valverde Villalobos are one of the mentor-mentee duos on the FIFA Coach Mentorship Programme – a relationship that has facilitated a crucial preparation match for both teams. As one of FIFA’s eight development projects for women’s football, this initiative aims to develop and promote a new generation of female coaches, each individually supported by a top coach from the women’s game.

"I think the main thing is to learn and gain from all of his experience," Valverde said when the pair met in person in October. "He [and his team] has always competed against very good national teams. It is a privilege for me to be here, to be involved in this development, and to have someone like him as a mentor to talk to," she explained. "He has a lot of experience with a European national team that [competes in] the most difficult and competitive football confederation. He has been involved in this process every day." Neto has been head coach of the Portugal women’s national team since 2014, managing them from the touchline in over 100 international matches. Under his leadership, the Seleção das Quinas qualified for UEFA Women’s EURO 2017, their first-ever major tournament. Since Neto was appointed, Portugal have also climbed from 41st place in the FIFA/COCA-COLA Women’s World Ranking to their current position of 23rd. "I’ve learned a lot from my time with Amelia, as my reality in Portugal is close to hers in Costa Rica," explained the 41-year-old. "Both of our teams are developing in their respective confederations, which makes them a little different compared to the top teams in those confederations, but I think we’re doing fine. The problems we have to address are similar and that makes speaking to each other easier, because we know each other’s reality. That has been very important for me, as Amelia has told me many things that make a lot of sense."

Coach Mentorship Programme Workshop: Amelia Valverde Villalobos and Francisco Neto

When it came to events on the pitch, it was the mentor and his team who came out on top with a narrow 1-0 win over his Costa Rican protégé at Complexo Desportivo do FC Alverca. An 82nd-minute goal from Jessica Silva sealed Portugal’s sixth successive victory in their second warm-up match for the play-off tournament. Analysing his mentee, Neto said: "Amelia is a very capable coach. Whenever we work at this level, our partnership becomes more open and honest and the way we communicate improves. It has been really interesting to share knowledge and teach Amelia something about European football. It has been a pleasure because she is so modest, even though she already has World Cup experience. She’s an exceptionally intelligent person and a fantastic coach," he concluded. "By playing these games against the Netherlands and Portugal, she now knows more about what it’s like to play against the kind of European sides she’ll come up against at the World Cup. There’s no doubt that she’ll be better prepared for the challenge."

Thanks in no small part to her mentor, Valverde headed into the match against Portugal with plenty of self-confidence and was already able to implement some of the things she has learned from their relationship. "Francisco has taught me so many things. I’ve benefited from all the training sessions I had with him, and now I can put those things into practice myself," explained the 35-year-old, who has worked for Costa Rica’s national team in various roles since 2011, including as a conditioning coach and later as assistant coach to the senior side and the U-20 team. Valverde succeeded Garabet Avedissian as head coach in 2015. "It’s a historic journey for our country," she said. "We’ve never played two matches in two different countries in a FIFA window before. It enabled us to learn so much about the weather, the pitches, our game plan and everything we need to know for Australia & New Zealand. We’re so grateful to the Netherlands and Portugal for the opportunity," Valverde explained, before adding how her partnership with Neto aided her preparations. "The thing that helped me more than anything else was the trust we have placed in each other. We have so much in common, and that has enabled us to grow further."