“The time is now” — Ex-football director and FIFA agent Raquel Sampaio discusses first World Cup for Portugal

Raquel Sampaio
Credit: Raquel Sampaio on Instagram

The Portugal national team are heading to their first World Cup this summer in Australia, after a conscious effort to improve and build the game for women in the country.

We sat down with former Sporting and Estoril director of football — as well as founder of the first agency exclusively for women’s football in Portugal, ‘Teammate Football’ — Raquel Sampaio, to discuss the journey to get to this stage and the effect it could have on future generations. As well as discussing the areas that still desperately need improving.

First of all, what is the mood in the country ahead of Portugal’s first ever World Cup?

“I think many people don’t understand what these players achieved in February and many others don’t even know that Portugal qualified for the World Cup for the first time ever. In Portugal, if the men’s team qualify for a World Cup, there will be seven TV channels broadcasting this feat from morning to night every day and coverage in every newspaper. If the same happens for the women’s side however, this feat is reported only on the same day, on maybe three of these seven channels with only limited coverage in the newspapers. 

“This lack of visibility is something that really annoys me in this country. The lack of acknowledgement for something the players are achieving, the history they are writing, the bright future they are building for the next generation. Fortunately, those who are passionate about women’s football are very excited, because there are clear signs of change. The time is now.”

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For people unfamiliar, what can football fans expect on the pitch from the Portugal team this summer? Which players do you feel can make an especially big impact?

“Portugal is an outsider. This allows Portugal to play without pressure, unlike more experienced teams like the USA and the Netherlands. I think Portugal can surprise people and make it past the group stage, which would be incredible. 

“The Portuguese national team has a great group of players who stand out for their strength as a collective. We have a team with experience and also young players with lots of talent. I’m a huge fan of all of them, especially those I have the pleasure to represent — Inês Pereira, Rute Costa, Dolores Silva, Fátima Pinto, Alicia Correia and Joana Martins.

“The players have a lot to offer. Whether it be the quality of Inês Pereira’s footwork, Tatiana Pinto’s mastery of defending and attacking, Andreia Jacinto’s composure, the shooting ability of Kika, the speed and dribbling of Jéssica Silva or the determination of Ana Capeta.”

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Back in 2016/17, when teams like Benfica and Sporting — the latter under your leadership, of course — founded women’s sides, did you envision that within five years the national team would have qualified for two European Championships and now a World Cup? Has the quick success taken you by surprise?

“I’m not surprised. The turning point was in 2016 when some Portuguese players started to become more professional with the ‘top’ clubs, like Sporting and Braga, and two years later with Benfica. Within a year, Portugal reached their first European championship. When the players started to commit themselves to full-time football, the results were natural because they were better prepared. The qualification for Euro 2017 and 2021, and the qualification for the 2023 World Cup are the best examples of this investment.

“It’s all about professionalisation of the women’s game — give them the tools and they’ll give you results. Can you believe that only a few players have contracts with sports brands? It’s crazy, they are playing at the highest level and there is still such a long way to go.”

How important has the recent success and visibility of the national team been for young girls and aspiring footballers in Portugal? 

“The most important thing about all this success is that the younger generations now have their references and role models. Now they can easily aspire to be footballers because they follow their idols closely and can see a genuine path to success.”

What steps do you think need to be taken to sustain the growth and progress of women’s football in Portugal? Both at grassroots and the professional level. What further could be done?

“To contextualise the topic, our league is comprised of 12 teams. Four teams are professional and the other eight teams are amateurs. The lack of competitiveness is here. Amateur clubs do not have the basic conditions like training facilities or the financial or human resources to offer to the players.

“On the professional side the problems are different. The players ask to be treated equally. We are not talking about equal wages, we are talking about having the same opportunities and working conditions as the men. The path I advocate is professionalisation and following the trend of the major European leagues. We need to create a good marketable product for both sponsors and consumers. 

“If we have a better league, we can attract more sponsors, generate more revenue and create better conditions for our players.”

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Back in 2003, Portugal suffered their biggest ever defeat when they lost 13-0 to Germany. 20 years later and the country is preparing for their first ever World Cup. Where do you envision the women’s game in Portugal 20 years from now?

“I see Portugal winning championships. I also believe we can develop the best players in the world. There is a lot of potential. The Portuguese players are very complete. They have the ability to suffer through difficult moments and turn things around. They also have exemplary technical ability and tactical understanding. The young girls now are better prepared to compete. 

“I also hope that Portuguese players become more desirable to the international markets and that they can play for the best clubs in the world. The top clubs don’t look at Portuguese players, it seems that they still lack credibility… It’s such a shame. 

“They are unbelievable. They just need the opportunity.”

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