Youth development has been a hot topic recently following the Euros in Israel and expectations will be equally high in the U20 World Cup which starts this weekend in Turkey.
Eric Dier is a young, English defender who has come through the youth ranks at Sporting Clube de Portugal. After becoming a first team regular in the Sporting side, Eric is hungry for national success and is taking the tournament very seriously. We spoke to the Lisbon-based player ahead of England’s opening game against Iraq…
Is it true to say that you come from a sporting family?
'My granddad and his brother both played football, and then my mum’s dad was also the chairman of the FA for a while. My dad also played tennis, and all my brothers and sisters play sport, they’re all quite sporty.’
You've been playing in Portugal for a long time now - how did you originally start playing there?
'Sometimes people think I moved to Portugal because of football but it was a family choice. Then I was just playing football for school, and my PE teacher who used to work for Sporting asked me if I wanted to go and train there for a couple of days. Obviously I said yes, I wasn’t really aware of who Sporting were as I’d only just moved from England as a young boy, but I went and trained there and they asked me to stay. From there, I’ve just moved up through the age groups, like any other player.'
So have Sporting become the team that you support?
'Yeah, definitely, I didn’t know any teams in Portugal before I moved, so I couldn’t really support anyone, but when I started playing for them and I realised how big a club they were, it was only natural that I started supporting them.'
How does it feel to have come through such a prestigious academy at Sporting?
'It’s nice, because whenever anyone recognises Sporting they know some of the players that have come through the ranks such as Ronaldo and Luis Figo. To the world those two will stand out. But there’s a lot more that have come through the academy. There are lots of players that people might not be aware of in England, but they’re playing in Spain, Italy and Portugal itself. It’s nice, and you trust the club because of their résumé, you can see who they’ve produced so you can trust them with yourself.'
Which players did you admire when you were growing up?
'At Sporting, I always admired a player called Daniel Carrico, he was the captain of Sporting, when I used to go and watch the team with my dad. He was so calm and classy on the ball. My favourite player in Portugal has always been Fernando, so to play against him this season was a real honour.'
Is it true that you were approached to play for Portugal?
'When I was about 15, the Portuguese Football Federation spoke to Sporting about it, and the director of the academy came to speak to me and my parents to see what my thoughts would be on that. We looked into it and it was clear that with both of my parents being English we’d have to wait until I was 18 before I could get dual nationality. But I wasn’t that bothered about playing for the national team to be honest, I was just happy playing for Sporting so I just let it go. But then by 17 or 18 I was being chosen to play for England, and when that option came along it felt like the right decision to make.'
What difference do you think it has made to your game to have developed as a player in Portugal?
'I feel extremely privileged to have grown up playing football in Portugal. Thanks to Sporting and Portugal I’m here today, and I’m not sure it would’ve been the same case if I hadn’t moved here. It might’ve been if I was in England, but I do think that it helped me in so many ways being here. There are things that are different and things that are the same. In England I’d say that physically, medically and the technology used is more advanced. And in Portugal, football-wise it’s different, training is a bit different but it’s hard to put your finger on what that is exactly. I wouldn’t say one is better than the other, it’s just different.'
How do you think people see the U20 World Cup?
'In England it doesn’t seem like people are so interested in it, but here in Portugal it’s a massive thing – it’s a World Cup. Last time around the Portuguese team got to the final, so everyone pays a lot of attention to it, and so obviously in my eyes it’s a massive tournament as well. I think everyone in the squad feels that it’s a massive opportunity. Obviously the senior World Cup is a bit different but it’s a massive tournament all the same.'
Who would you say are players we should look out for in the tournament?
'Portugal have a good team, there’s Ricardo Esgaio and Joao Mario who play with me for Sporting, there’s also two players who play for Barcelona now, Edgar Ie and Agostinho Ca, but their whole squad is good to be honest. It’s strange that neither Argentina or Brazil have qualified, when you think of World Cups you automatically think of them, they’re teams that you’d like to play against, but it just shows how strong the other teams are that have qualified. We’ve got Chile in our group and they are there on merit ahead of the other South American teams.'
What do you like to do in your spare time between games?
'We train in the mornings and sometimes in the afternoons as well, so we’re pretty busy. My mum always forced me to read when I was younger, so now I do like to have a couple of books, I enjoy that now to take my mind off things. It has to be paper books as well, I tried reading something on the iPad but I didn’t like it, you don’t get that same sense of achievement. At the moment I’m enjoying the Jack Reacher books, and I’d ordered Craig Bellamy’s autobiography for the trip but it didn’t arrive on time which was disappointing! I also like the obvious things like Playstation, iPods and all that, we’ll definitely be playing a bit of FIFA while we’re away.'
And what about away from football, what do you like to do then?
'I’ve got two dogs now, they’re a handful, I use up a lot of my time with them, apart from that I’m just like a normal person really. I like playing golf, especially here in Portugal where the courses are beautiful. I spend a lot of time with friends. I go to a restaurant near where I live, Maritimo, which is just like eating at home, the traditional Portuguese food there is beautiful.'
Obviously you haven't lived in England for a while, but is there anything that you miss about it?
'Some of my family still live in England, so I miss them, and one other thing I do miss is English winters to be honest, I like being in England around December and January, I like that Christmas feeling in England. I always enjoy going to London because it’s a great city, there’s so much culture and so much going on there. Whenever we have international breaks I try to make the most of the opportunity, and we get a winter break here in Portugal so it’s nice to take that time to visit.'
Have you thought about what you'd like to do in the future if the opportunity for a move to England came up?
'I’ve read a lot of stuff about me moving but I’m really happy at Sporting. I want to make myself a main fixture in the Sporting first team and to play regularly for them. My dream has always been to play in the Premier League but I don’t think it’s the right time to go…I would only want to move when I know that I can’t improve anymore and I think that Sporting is the best place for me to get better as a player.'
Thanks to Eric for taking the time to speak to us ahead of the tournament - and we wish him best of luck in Turkey.