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Opinion

Whatever Happened To… Hugo Viana?

4 months ago
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Arriving on the shores of the Tyne in 2002 with sparkling endorsements, Hugo Viana was described by Freddie Shepherd as “The best young player in the world”, the excitement surrounding his signing could be cut with a knife.

Nineteen years old and with sacks of skill, Hugo Viana was billed as the next big thing after winning the Young European Footballer of the Year award following his breakthrough season at Sporting.

Turning down Liverpool to play in front of 52,000 fans at St.James already put him in good stead with the Newcastle fans before he’d even kicked a ball (or tried a Cruyff turn).

Sir Bobby recalled a conversation with, then Liverpool boss, Gerard Houllier in which he conceded (with the least French phrase I can think of) “You bugger, you beat me.” Unfortunately for Hugo, Sir Bob and The Toon faithful, The Portuguese Prodigy didn’t live up to his heavy billing and two seasons and four goals later, he was shipped back to Sporting on loan.

On the return to his homeland, Viana seemed to find his feet again contributing six goals whilst helping his team to the UEFA cup final in Lisbon (which they subsequently lost 3-1 to CSKA Moscow, Viana making it onto the pitch at the 88 minute mark). It seemed that Hugo was comfortable when in the green and white stripes of The Lions but it was clear that, in order for his potential to be realised, he would have to prove himself in one of the ‘big leagues’.

With Newcastle still not convinced that his form for Sporting would carry over to the Premier League, Hugo was sent on loan to sunny Valencia, given another crack at the ‘big league’ whip, closer to home in La Liga.

His time with Los Ches was mostly underwhelming as he faced stiff competition from Valencia stalwarts David Albelda and Rubén Baraja for a place in the team. He played in 19 games in total, most of which were from the bench as he became a largely forgotten figure at the club. Despite this, it is important to note that he kept his place with the Portugal national team and was in the squad for the 2006 World Cup in Germany. He featured as a substitute in two matches in a tournament where Portugal impressed and made it through to the semi finals, beating England on penalties in the quarters. Viana didn’t step up to take one of Portugal’s seven penalties, perhaps suggesting a man lacking in confidence at what must have felt like a pivotal point in his career.

On his return from Germany, Valencia secured the permanent signing of Viana for around £2 million, a fraction of the price The Mags bought him for. Then manager, Quique Sánchez Flores, oversaw an overhaul in preparation for a season in which the team would make it to the Champions League Quarter Finals with help from the likes of David Villa, Pablo Aimar and Mista. A fruitful season for The Oranges, didn’t necessarily mean a successful season for Viana, as he made most of his appearances from the bench and was sent out on loan to Osasuna at the end of the season.

Viana arrived at Osasuna full of hope that he could play a more active role in the first team, both in La Liga and in Europe, after The Reds had defied the odds to finish 4th in the previous season. Unfortunately for all involved, Viana broke his foot in pre-season training and was ruled out for 4 months.The injury occurred only a week after Osasuna agreed to take him on loan for the season and the manager, Jose Angel Ziganda, admitted it was a huge blow for the team and the player.

The pain that the injury caused would be felt not only physically, but also mentally, for a former ‘wonderkid’ in the midst of a stuttering career.

Viana would make only 11 appearances in all competitions and was swiftly returned to Valencia at the end of the season. A season of obscurity followed in which he made only 6 appearances under new boss, Unai Emery. Now 26 years old and out of favour, it was imperative that Hugo found a club where he could find refuge and attempt to resurrect his reputation. Having struggled to find his rhythm in England and Spain, a return to his homeland seemed like a necessary step backwards if he was to play regular football again. And it seems fitting that the club that took him on loan, would also be a ‘Sporting’ club just like at Lisbon, where he made a name for himself as the most promising young player in the world.

This time, Hugo would be plying his trade with Sporting Braga, 200 miles north of where his career began. On his return to Portuguese football, he was an instant success, scoring twice against Belenenses in a 3-1 win. His form continued to impress as the season progressed, scoring an exquisite free kick against Benfica in a famous 2-0 victory for Braga. Despite this, Viana eventually lost his place in the team with his role in the latter part of the season restricted to impact sub. Braga ended the season in second place, missing out on the title to Benfica on the final day. This was their highest ever league placing and reflected a largely successful season for both the club and Viana.

At the start of the following season, Braga signed Viana on a free transfer, giving him the opportunity to get his feet under the metaphorical table and cement a place in the team. What followed was another positive season for Braga and Viana as they achieved a top 4 finish in the league, ensuring European football again in the following season.

Even more impressive was their unexpected run in the Europa League in which Hugo started all of their games. After beating Benfica over two legs in the semi final, they were full of confidence going into the final in Dublin, pitting them against Primeira League table toppers, Porto. In a closely contested game, Braga were narrowly defeated by a typical Falcao bullet header, breaking the hearts of the Braga faithful. It was a runners up medal yet again for Viana, who must have felt an undesirable pattern forming as his team were second best again.

Viana completed the final two years of his contract at Braga as they recorded 3rd and 4th place finishes in the Primeira League. In his final year, Viana helped Braga to their first League Cup trophy as they took their revenge on Porto beating them 1-0 in the final. Viana left on a high after playing the whole game and picking up his first winners medal since playing for Lisbon at the start of his professional career. In his final season at Braga, he showed flashes of the brilliance that had made him the most wanted youngster in Europe, highlighted by a magical free kick he scored from his own half against Portimonense.

This success led to a controversial and unexpected call up to be part of the squad for Portugal’s Euro 2012 campaign as a replacement for the injured Carlos Martins. Portugal were beaten by Spain in the semis in a tournament where Hugo warmed the bench throughout, not getting a single minute of playing time. This would spell the end of his international career, in which he played 29 times and scored 1 goal for his country.

Out of contract and eager for a fresh challenge, Viana decided to jet off to Al Ahli in Dubai (where his international compatriot, Ricardo Quaresma, had plied his trade in the previous season) probably for money rather than love. Viana’s first season in the blistering heat of Dubai was hugely prosperous, making 39 appearances across a season in which his team dominated the domestic stage, winning the coveted UAE treble.

When questioned about the difficulties of playing in such harsh conditions, Viana stated that adapting to life in the Middle East was nothing compared to his opening months living on Tyneside. Viana explained “The most difficult thing was the language. For the first six months I didn’t know any English, so I heard my name and didn’t know what they were saying about me.”

The last stop in Viana’s dissolving playing career was at Al Ahli’s local rivals Al Wasl where he chipped in with 7 assists and 2 goals in a season where the Dubai outfit finished 6th in the league.

After hanging up his boots at the age of 33, Hugo wanted to stay in the game and was offered the chance to become Director of Football at Belenenses back in his native country. After spending six months learning the ropes at the Lisbon club he became a consultant for the Portuguese Football Players Syndicate before coming full circle and taking the role of Director of International Relations at his boyhood club, Sporting Lisbon.

This is the role which he holds at the time of writing, 17 years after signing for Newcastle, chocked full of potential which would be mostly unrealised. In his unveiling at Newcastle, a confident Sir Bobby discussed plans for his new signing, saying “We have bought him for the next five years plus another five I hope. In Hugo we have bought a big future.”

In the end, that future did not unfold in the north east and was fraught with adversity when attempting to make a name for himself outside of Portugal. Still, with medals at club level and memories of representing his country on some of football’s biggest stages, his career certainly could have been worse.

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