It is relatively rare for Portuguese national coaches to consider players who are not at one of the domestic Big Three – Benfica, Sporting Lisbon and FC Porto – or a top foreign side. Belenenses midfielder Neca is an exception.

Some cynics claimed that the 22-year-old’s inclusion in the squad for October’s home friendly with Tunisia was only because the game was being played at Belenenses’ ground and that the presence of a local favourite would drum up interest at the box office. But that is more than unfair to one of the best young players in the country.

An all-rounder with the ability to win the ball, pass accurately and score goals, Neca has improved immeasurably in the past 18 months. Last season, his drive and goals were at the heart of his club’s respectable fifth-place League finish, and he has continued in the same vein this term. He set the tone with two goals in the opening day 2-2 draw at FC Porto and has produced several man-of-the-match displays in Belenenses’ strong start.

Neca, born Joao Alexandre Duarte Fernandes, plays with the same grit and purpose in central midfield as former Portugal skipper Paulo Sousa. But the pair are poles apart in one crucial area. The opposition box was usually a step too far for Sousa, while Neca has developed his goalscoring craft year on year.

Even so, Neca was not to enjoy a full-blown international debut against Tunisia. Caretaker coach Agostinho Oliveira only brought him on 11 minutes from time. Not that the youngster was complaining at the end of the 1-1 draw. ‘The last few days with the national team have been a really positive experience,’ said Neca, a Belenenses first-teamer since January 1998. ‘I’m satisfied, and the crowd gave me a wonderful welcome. I just wish the result had been different.’

While stressing that he was totally committed to the Belenenses cause this season, Neca also added that he hoped his first cap would eventually lead to a move to a higher-profile team. His club coach, Marinho Peres, accepts that the star midfielder will probably leave for Benfica, Sporting Lisbon or FC Porto at the end of the season.

‘Neca has fought hard and exploited his talent to come through the Belenenses youth ranks and reach the national team,’ says Peres. ‘If a big club makes a move for him, it’s good for him as a professional and for a club like Belenenses, who can negotiate a good fee for him. He’s one of the most important prospects in Portuguese football, a kid with tremendous potential. Sooner or later he wasbound to come into his own.’

Club Belenenses
Country Portugal
Born December 31, 1979, in Lisbon
Previous club Olivais e Moscavide
International debut October 2002, v Tunisia
International caps 1 (0 goals)