Canada's Lucas Dias (20) heads the ball challenged by Honduras' Cristopher Melendez during a Concacaf Men's Olympic Qualifying championship soccer match in Guadalajara, Mexico, Thursday, March 25, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Fernando Llano

Youngest member of Olympic team enjoying first taste of Canada program

Lucas Dias has long been ahead of the game.

At eight or nine, he was playing with kids two years older at the Sporting FC Academy in Toronto. Moving to Portugal at 11, he was the youngest at Sporting CPs academy in Lisbon.

Now 18, Dias plays for Sporting CP’s under-23 team and is the youngest member of the Canadian squad at the CONCACAF Men’s Olympic Qualifying Championship in Guadalajara, Mexico.

The tournament is for players born after Jan. 1, 1997. Dias was born in January 2003.

Coach Mauro Biello used Dias off the bench in each of Canada’s three group games, with Dias making his Canadian debut in the 72nd minute against El Salvador.

“I enjoyed it a lot, It was nice to get my feet wet at such a high level, and in a very important competition,” Dias said afterwards.

He came on in the 70th minute against Haiti and 73rd minute against Honduras. Biello says he has restricted the teenager’s minutes because he missed some pre-tournament training sessions because of COVID-19 protocols.

Dias sees himself as an attacking midfielder, a provider playing behind the striker. But he can also see a role on the left wing, taking on defenders one-on-one.

The coach has liked what’s he’s seen, citing his “ability to get out of situations.”

“Everything that I’ve seen from him at Sporting … he’s been able to show that. He’s a young player, a player that’s hungry,” Biello said.

And a player with options, given he has one cap for Portugal at the under-16 level.

“It’s an honour to represent Portugal and Canada,” Dias said. “Right now I can still go back and forth. It’s very difficult to pick one country — one where I was born in, which I would love to represent. And the other one where I’m developing as a player, where I’m growing up, my childhood is basically all there, which I would love and it would be a honour also to represent.

“I’m just going to take it step by step, let the future tell what’s going to happen. While I’m able to represent both, I will be truly happy and I’ll give it my all wherever I am.”

Dias says he has been well looked after at his first Canadian camp.

“I’m younger than them but they’re treating me very well. They’re helping me. They’re helping me with certain tactics that I’m not familiar with. And I think they’re a great group of guys.”

Both his sets of grandparents were born in Portugal and emigrated to Canada.

Born in Toronto, Dias started his soccer at the Sporting FC Academy, which is affiliated with Sporting CP — one of Portugal’s big three clubs along with Porto and Benfica.

Dias was one of the first to join the Toronto academy when it opened in 2011.

“A really really good player,” recalled Sam Gyeke, Sporting FC’s technical director and head coach. “Very good understanding of the game. A natural leader. He was playing two years up at that time with the 2001s, he’s a 2003.”

“He always put in the work. He was always there, always ready to play. You can;’ say he didn’t deserve (his success),” he added.

Dias caught the eye of the big club and started visiting Sporting in Lisbon when he was nine for brief training stints.

“They saw me, they kept an eye on me. And they gave me an option to come to Portugal.”

He was 11 when he and his father made the move to Europe.

“It happened so fast … But it was something I’d always dreamed of,” Dias said. “So when they gave me that offer, I didn’t really think twice.”

His father spent the first year in Portugal, then returned home. Dias stayed on, living at the academy.

Traditionally kids start at 13 or 14, but they made an exception for Dias. He was the player farthest away from their family, although there were also players from Angola, Guinea and France.

“It was extremely difficult,” Dias said. “It’s a thing I don’t think any kid would want to go through because the pain, the sacrifice, the tears, the dedication that I had to do to pass all the things that happened at such a young age, it was bad.

“The first three weeks I got there, especially when I was 12 and I lived by myself there, I wanted t come back to Canada. I wanted to give up.

“My parents supported me. The club supported me. Friends were supporting me. It was very difficult. I don’t think I slept pretty much the first three weeks, month that I was there because there was so much going on for me at such a young age. But I think nowadays the people that sacrifice, that do things that are difficult, are the ones that are going to succeed in life.”

Today Dias, who learned Portuguese after arriving in the country, plays for Sporting’s under-23 team in the Liga Revelacao.

“It’s a very competitive league,” he said.

Sporting also has a B reserve team with players moving in and out of the different squad. Dias has trained with both the reserve and senior sides.

“That’s where you want to be, of course. My goal in the next few months, next year is trying to get to that A team.”

He considers Portugal his second home.

“I speak the language, I’ve got a bunch of friends. Everything’s going well. The club is amazing. They’re trusting their youth a lot, which is good. I have lots of friends that I play with in the current year that are already on the first team which I’m very proud of. It makes me happy seeing that if they’re able to d it, I’m able to do it. And I’m very happy for them.

“Sporting is an amazing club. They trust their youth, they help the players. They also don’t just form players but they form men too.”

Having just turned 18, he still lives at the academy but plans to move out in July. He signed a pro deal at 16.

He was last in Toronto at the beginning in July, having visited there in June.

The pandemic has made for a difficult year. Dias, who usually sees his family — he’s the oldest of three brothers — every three months, has not seen them in nine months.

He has not forgotten his family’s help in pursuing his soccer dream.

“The sacrifices that not just I made myself but that they made as a family to make my dreams come true, I’m extremely thankful,” he said. “To let your kid leave at 11 years old, some parents would probably say ‘You’re crazy.’

“Lots of people told me parents ‘How could you let our son leave at 11 years old?’ My parents still let me fulfil my dreams and go after my dreams and try and reach them. I’ve just got to thank them.”

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