Cristiano Ronaldo epitomises the astounding success of Portugal’s football exports over recent years. But further down the scale, a raft of Portuguese players have carved out a name for themselves abroad. A perfect example is Sheffield Wednesday cult hero José Semedo.
In an in-depth interview Semedo tells PortuGOAL why he is love with English football in general, and Sheffield Wednesday in particular, discusses his close friendship with Cristiano Ronaldo – including fascinating insight into CR7’s work ethic even as a young kid – as well as sharing his thoughts on the Seleção, Wednesday manager Stuart Gray, midfield partner in crime Kieran Lee and compatriot Rafael Floro.
PortuGOAL: When you came to Wednesday, did you think you would stop for a long time?
José Semedo: I always wanted to play in England. In Portugal, they show the Premier League. Most Portuguese players dream of playing in England. They prefer watching English football to Spanish football. They watch Spanish football because the best player in the world is from Portugal, but they would choose to watch, for example, West Ham versus Fulham rather than, say, Seville against Granada. When I was growing up at Sporting Lisbon, it was the time of Andy Cole, Dwight Yorke, Beckham – the best team in the world at the time. One day Ronaldo said he would play for Manchester United.
So when I got the chance to play in English football, I didn’t think twice. At the time, I had the option of a four-year contract with Cagliari. I had won the European Under-21 cup with Portugal in the Netherlands, but I knew Charlton were interested in me and I signed for Charlton.
I had four lovely years there but I remember coming to play at Sheffield Wednesday and something told me: one day I will play for this club; I want to play for this club. I remember the 2-2 game at Hillsborough when we were 2-0 up at half-time and normally I am focusing on my own game but on that day the atmosphere in the ground in the second-half really grabbed my attention – I thought that these are the fans I want to play for and this is the club where I want to be. I was never in doubt that I would play for Sheffield Wednesday. Charlton wanted to renew my contract but all the time I thought ‘I want to play for this club and I want to play in front of this crowd.’
That summer I got offered a two-year contract from a top-flight club in Portugal for the same money – two clubs in the Primeira Liga wanted me – and I could have been close to my mum and dad but I wanted to sign here again.
PortuGOAL: Would you encourage young Portuguese players to play in the divisions below the English Premier League?
José Semedo: The competition in the lower leagues in England is unbelievable. I would say League Two in England (the fourth tier) is a very similar standard to the Portuguese second division. But English football is not for every player. In Portugal, if you’re winning a game 2-0 in the 80th minute, then you win the game, for sure. It’s almost impossible to come back because the game is all passing, passing, passing. In England, if the referee gives five minutes of added time and you’re 2-0 up, you’re still not secure. The game in England is more competitive in many ways.
I would recommend any player to play in England, even an 18-year-old Portuguese player coming to play in League Two, for example. For me, I feel the most important thing in this country is football. I can identify with football in England; the way they play football and the way they speak about football. England is a blessed country for football. Normally you can say that they don’t produce the best footballers in the world but they are blessed; people are fanatical about football. When players come here, they don’t want to go home. Wednesday is a special club, particularly when you play away. The away stand being full up in every game; it’s special.
PortuGOAL: A simplistic assessment says English footballers are stronger and more physical while Portuguese players are more skilful and have more technique. Is that true in your opinion?
José Semedo: Yes. English players are not far away in terms of being technical but Portuguese players are a little bit more so. I believe Portugal produce more technical players. Because of the past, everyone wants to be Ronaldo, Luís Figo, Rui Costa. Every kid growing up wants to be them; every kid wants to do stepovers and play number seven. No-one wants to be a defender; they want to be like Ronaldo.
In England, Beckham doesn’t need that; he wants to cross. Everyone enjoys Alan Shearer as a striker – put the ball in the box; there is no time for wingers to produce skill. That’s why it’s become a different type of football. But you see people in England control the ball because they are technical too. I think if you ask José Mourinho, he would say he prefers English football because it combines the technical with the physical. In Portugal, there are too many free-kicks and the game stops too much. In England there is less of that.
PortuGOAL: I remember Rui Costa playing for Portugal at Hillsborough in the 1996 European Championships – he was an amazing player
José Semedo: Yes, everyone wants to become this type of player. That’s why the country becomes more technical. Every kid is growing up with that mentality to be technical.
PortuGOAL: Do you still follow Portuguese football? Who do you think will win the Primeira Liga?
José Semedo: I read the Portuguese press every day and I watch the big clubs when they play each other. This season I think Porto will win the league. They have hardly ever gone more than two years without winning the Primeira Liga in recent history. You have to go back a long time for when they last failed to win the league twice in a row. They have signed some good players and Benfica have lost a lot of big names and have not replaced them with players of the same level.
PortuGOAL: Did you support a club as a boy?
José Semedo: Yes. Real Madrid. Sporting Lisbon because I was playing there and Real Madrid. I follow Madrid more than ever now because my friend plays there. It’s a dream club. Ronaldo’s two dream clubs were Manchester United and Real Madrid.
PortuGOAL: How often do you speak to Ronaldo?
José Semedo: Like I speak to my brother – regularly. Almost every day there’s a text. We’re very close.
PortuGOAL: People always say how hard Ronaldo works and in interviews in the Wednesday programme, the other players always say the same about you...
José Semedo: He’s blessed by God with his talent which is not common in many players but he combines that with professionalism every single day. Me and him, at 13-years-old, we were not allowed to go to the gym and just before midnight we would jump down the stairs and sneak into the gym and we had to hide from the security guy. Afterwards, we would come in and our arms were a little bit pumped and we had to hide our arms under our shirts and say, ‘Oh it’s so cold outside’!
Always, me and him did one v one at about ten o’clock at night and he put weights on his leg because I’m more defensive. We were training a lot, me and him. He’s so determined to be the best; to have perfection. Since he was 10, he had to do everything perfectly; pass perfectly, shoot perfectly, work on his left foot. Everything in his football has to be perfect.
He’s a human being because he plays like us but if someone believes in God, or creation, this guy has to be one; there are not many human beings like him in the world. He could easily sit and relax but he wants to be recognised as the number one; every year it makes him get better and better. He didn’t give up; Messi won the Ballon d’Or for four years but he wants to get the Ballon d’Or and be number one and that’s what makes him special.
PortuGOAL: His performance in the World Cup qualifier against Sweden was incredible.
José Semedo: Yes. When I judge Portugal at the World Cup, the majority of the players weren’t in good form. Ronaldo was injured; he wasn’t 100%. When Ronaldo is 100% is when Portugal make a difference. In the past we had Figo, Rui Costa, Deco, Costinha, Maniche all in the same team. If one of them doesn’t score, the other can; if it’s not Figo, it’s Pauleta. Today it’s only Ronaldo.
PortuGOAL: You played for a short time in Italy. How did you find that?
José Semedo: It’s so difficult to score a goal because they do a lot of defensive work. There are two banks of four – they practise that every day. People like football because the celebration of the goal. In a bad game the goal becomes more special. In Italy, you don’t see a lot of goals. That’s why I don’t appreciate Italian football as much.
PortuGOAL: What attributes have made you a success at Wednesday?
José Semedo: Wow, this is a difficult question! I don’t really have an answer. My secret is just working hard every day. It’s to respect the fans. When they come to the ground, they expect us to win. I can’t really say any more. The way I play, the manager expects me to protect the back four and to cover the wingers when they push up. Every midfielder has defensive work to do but I’m a proper defensive midfielder. I can’t put myself first. I have to put my teammates first. I have to put the people who pay to watch the games first. Wednesday fans still come whether we’re on a good run or a bad run to support us.
PortuGOAL: Your partnership with Kieran Lee was very impressive last season. How highly do you rate him?
José Semedo: He’s a sensational footballer. We have many good footballers but he’s one of the best. He is a very intelligent player; the way he gets the ball, the way he turns, the way he thinks about the game...you don’t hear him on the pitch talking too much but all the time he’s in the right place at the right time. He’s so intelligent. It’s very unusual to see him give the ball away. All the top players...Beckham, Scholes, Zidane...they are top because they have the ball so many times and don’t give it away. Even in training, it’s difficult for him to give the ball away. I don’t think we’ve seen anything from him yet...there’s still a lot more to come.
PortuGOAL: You’ve spoken about how much you admire Stuart Gray and a lot of the players have stated how much they love playing for him. Is that possibly the most important attribute for a manager?
José Semedo: For sure. He doesn’t have favourites and when it’s like that, the whole team works hard for each other. He wants us, as a team, to help each other and he helps everybody. He’s with us every single day in training. He tells us every single day what he wants us to do and how he wants us to play. He will speak to Chris Kirkland, a player who is one of our best players and who has played in the major stadiums, the same way as he will speak to an Under-21 player.
He respects everyone and if one day I become a manager I will do exactly the same. I think what he did last season – where we were when he took charge – is unbelievable. All the credit is on him. He was brave and while people were dreaming of us getting out of relegation trouble, he made us look up and believe we could get a play-off place.
PortuGOAL: It’s one of the toughest jobs in football with the way that the club declined over several years
José Semedo: Yes, and the fans demand success and that is the way big clubs work. You can’t come to Sheffield Wednesday and do what you want. We players are trying to deliver that. I think we are solid now in The Championship; an established team. When you are like that, only good things can happen.
PortuGOAL: How is Rafael Floro (Portuguese left-back) doing?
José Semedo: He’s progressing very well. It’s difficult coming from another country. The manager can see he’s got big potential. He has a quality left foot and he will be a top player for Wednesday, for sure.
PortuGOAL: He came into the team at a really tough time last season and played at Rotherham when the team were very poor and then played in another defeat the following game but he didn’t do much wrong in my opinion.
José Semedo: Yes, I’m sure he will give a lot of happiness to Wednesday fans. He’s a pure Portuguese player with his technical ability and is a top footballer. I’m 100% sure he will bring a lot of happiness to this club.
PortuGOAL: I wonder if he could play left-midfield as well.
José Semedo: Yes. He can do both. It could make him even closer to the team than playing left-back. We have two good left-backs but he’s still young and can be one of the main men for Wednesday in the future.
PortuGOAL: It’s good for him to have you there as well.
José Semedo: Yes, it’s always good to have someone who speaks the same language. He’s enjoying it and he loves English football and the fans. Like I say, it’s a dream for every Portuguese footballer to come to the UK.
PortuGOAL: You’ve spoken of your desire to end your career at Wednesday. Whether this is the case or not, what are your plans for when you finish playing?
José Semedo: My plans are to stay in football, to do management or to be a coach because I love to be on the pitch and I love to play football and watch football. I know it’s not easy because every player finishes their career and thinks about being a manager. I hope to carry on and be involved in football.
PortuGOAL: Would you be interested in doing media work?
José Semedo: I say management because I’m still a football player but I’m sure that when you finish your career you look at the bigger picture and anywhere that involves football. At the moment, it’s just management.
PortuGOAL: Would you consider going to another country? As well as Portugal, what about Spain, for example?
José Semedo: At this moment in time, my head is England, England, England. I don’t see anything more. I love the way the English people respect me and speak to me.
PortuGOAL: When are you going to get Ronaldo to a Wednesday game?
José Semedo: I hope this year. We need to get the right day. If we play and they don’t play. I hope we play one Tuesday night when he doesn’t have a game and so he can come. He tells me he wants to come and watch. As soon as we get the opportunity, he will be here.
Daniel Burkinshaw was asking the questions.