Algarve’s football prodigy

By Ana Tavares [email protected]

As the football transfer deadline day approached quickly, leaving European clubs with little time to confirm their deals for the new season before the winter transfer window, there was one particular transfer that caught the eye of local residents here in the Algarve.

Born in London but raised in Portugal, where he lived for several years in Albufeira, local talent Tiago Abiola Delfim Almeida Ilori signed for one of the biggest and most charismatic English football clubs: Liverpool FC. The 20-year-old centre back, who has played for the Portuguese National Team at U18, U19 and U20 level, was sold to the Reds by Sporting Lisbon for €7.5 million as part of a deal confirmed on September 2, the transfer deadline day in Portugal.

But as friends and family effusively congratulated the player on social networks such as Facebook, his former Portuguese club ensured its share of the local talent’s success by keeping a 25% stake on a future transfer, according to the club’s statement sent to the CMVM (Portuguese Securities Market Commission).

The player signed the contract after undergoing a medical at Melwood, and told his new club’s offical website: “It feels great being a Liverpool player – coming to the Premier League has always been a dream for me. I’m going to try and achieve everything I can. I want to play as much as possible and we’ll see what the future holds. I will give my all and try my best to help the team.” He added: “Liverpool have a great team and I think it’s the place for me to be at the moment.

Ilori was the sixth signing of Brendan Rodgers, Liverpool’s manager, during the summer transfer window, following Kolo Toure, Iago Aspas, Luis Alberto, Simon Mignolet and Aly Cissokho.

“I always believed that he would end up playing in England because he enjoyed being there. I wasn’t at all surprised by his transfer, he is a kid with massive potential,” Paulo Bitoque, Tiago’s former Physical Education (PE) teacher at the well-known International School of the Algarve in Lagoa, told the Algarve Resident.

Having taught the young footballer between 2003 and 2007 and noticing his huge knack for sports in general – not just football – right from the off, professor Paulo says that the boy’s impressive skills and physical condition were a tell-tale sign of what was to come. “He was an amazing PE student and he excelled in several sports. He was very fast and boasted a huge jumping ability. By sixth grade, his results were already those of someone two years ahead. He was an Astudent in PE not just academically, but also due to his commitment,” said the teacher, who first met Ilori when he was just 10 years old.

Albufeira boy

The son of an English father (who is a Nigerian descendant) and a Portuguese mother, Tiago enrolled at the International School alongside his two older siblings – 25-year-old sister Carla and 23-year-old brother Ricardo, who is also a keen footballer.

With an obvious talent and passion for football, he played for the successful local club Imortal DC in his hometown of Albufeira, before he caught the eye of Sporting scouts at the tender age of 11.

“That is when Sporting began following his development, and he started going to Lisbon to play and practise at their academy. He then moved to Lisbon permanently at the age of 13,” recalls Paulo, adding that scouts often flock to the school and to sports club Imortal in search of new talent.

Whilst his first official year for the lions’ team (as Sporting is known) is rumoured not to have gone so well – he was loaned to the neighbouring club of Estoril –, he went back to Sporting’s Alcochete-based academy as a stopper and flourished over the next two years. In his first year as a junior player, Tiago became a regular starter, standing out for his height (he’s 1.90m, around 6.2ft), and earning a spot in Portugal’s National Team.

His first professional contract followed, and he began playing for Sporting’s senior team during the 2011/2012 pre-season with great results. His debut was on November 6, 2011, in a match against União de Leiria, which his club won by 3-1. Little over a month later, he played in the UEFA Europa League against Lazio, and was part of the stoppers’ duo alongside American player Onyewu.

In the meantime, Tiago conquered the National Junior Championship and played in the UEFA European Under-19 Championship for Portugal. However, he is still eligible to play for the English National Team if he wishes to in the future, as he was born in London and never represented Portugal at senior level.

In fact, soon after his transfer, rumours emerged that the Football Association had opened the door for the defender to represent England.

In the following season, Ilori was part of Sporting’s B team, but was frequently called back to the main team and ended up conquering a more permanent spot in 2013. Despite some rookie mistakes, he was considered one of the season’s revelations, and rumours about a possible transfer to Liverpool began surfacing.

Whilst Sporting offered to renew his contract, which would terminate in 2015, Tiago never accepted to do so and, following an injury in his right hand, was away from the pitches at the beginning of the current season. After 14 official games for Sporting’s main team, during which he scored a goal (against Gil Vicente on February 16, 2013), he was bought by the Reds. On Sunday, September 1, the Albufeira-raised boy could be seen sitting at Anfield Road, where he watched his team beat Manchester United and move to the top of the Premier League.

The rest, hopes his former PE teacher, will be football history.

Faster than Ronaldo

“Tiago was an ambitious kid, it was obvious that he wanted to play for Sporting and go to Lisbon. Maybe Sporting sold him a little bit too soon, but these young players earn around €2,000 to €3,000 in Portugal and then are offered millions by clubs such as Liverpool [according to the financial experts at Deloitte, the average wage for a top flight player is around €35,500 a week]. He has family in England and he loved going to London on holiday, so I believe he will fit right in,” said Paulo.

The International School’s teacher also hopes that Tiago’s game will be as startling in England as it was in the school pitches during class: “It was clear that he had the skills to be an ideal defender or striker. He was extremely fast. In fact, I was talking the other day to one of the people who worked with him at Sporting’s academy and he said that Tiago was the fastest footballer that the academy has ever seen. Faster than Cristiano Ronaldo even,” he assured.

The teacher, who kept in touch with Tiago even after he moved to Lisbon and attended Lisbon’s American School, added: “He single-handedly managed to turn every game around. Tiago would never lose; I would have him play with all the girls against the boys and he would still win. In fact, I believe he invented a whole new position – the striker-goalkeeper. He would be the goalkeeper and as soon as he caught the ball, he would run to the opponent’s goal and score.”

However, and despite his enviable skills, Paulo says that the now Liverpool player was never anything but kind to his school colleagues. “He was more the introvert type, but he made friends really easily and he was a good kid with a good heart, always friendly and helpful with all his mates.” The stopper’s good deeds didn’t let him down now, with the teacher saying that his former school colleagues were quick to congratulate him about the transfer.

With his former top student now playing for one of the most famous English clubs – and the timing could not have been better; this year’s was Liverpool’s best season start since 1993/1994 – Paulo also wanted to leave him a message: “I wish him the best of luck and I hope that he wins every game for Liverpool, except those against Benfica!”