The history of Portuguese football is one of the great mysteries of the international game. They have never made a great impression on the world stage and their best tournament finish was to be losing finalists in their own European Championships in 2004. This seems like an unbelievable statistic when you consider that they have consistently produced great players. How can a nation that has spawned Eusebio, Luis Figo, Pauleta, Rui Costa and Nuno Gomes not have made more of an impact in major tournaments?
It is in fact, the great names that provide the main clue as to why Portugal have never been ultimately successful. For all the legendary names that have rolled off the production line, there has never been a great team.
The current crop of Portugal players could have been lifted out of any era in the history of the national team. They are a workmanlike squad interspersed with the odd flair player and one genuine superstar. You may have wondered why I left Cristiano Ronaldo out of the aforementioned list of Portugal’s great players. The fact is, he stands alone as the greatest player to come from the Iberian peninsula. No Portuguese player can match what Ronaldo has achieved in his career. At 29 he has 50 international goals making him his country’s record scorer, he has won the Champions League twice, been named world player of the year twice, invented a way of taking free kicks and between his spells for Manchester United and Real Madrid, has plundered nearly 400 goals. Lionel Messi’s advocates will point to the outstanding world cup that the little Argentine is enjoying but for me Ronaldo is, just, the better of the two.
On the eve of the tournament few would have had Portugal down as favourites. Ronaldo aside it would have been hard to name a quality player in their final 23. The odd flair players I referred to, Nani and Moutinho are inconsistent at the highest level. Yet with Ronaldo in their ranks it was impossible to ignore their claims as dark horses. There is no such thing in sport as a one man team but there was a feeling that Portugal could be carried into at least the last eight on the back of Ronaldo’s magic.
Unfortunately, Ronaldo picked up an injury to his knee during a training camp. Whilst the injury was not believed to be serious, images of Ronaldo leaving training with his knee strapped in ice on a regular basis would have made for unsettling viewing back home. The forward played in all three group games but it was clear that he was struggling for full fitness. He was visibly hindered in every game and subsequently he proved to be more hindrance than help to his team.
Ironically, he was undoubtedly the star performer for Portugal in this campaign. In the dismal defeat to Germany he looked like the only player in red capable of attacking the resolute German back line. Against the USA he provided a delicious cross to set up the last gasp equaliser for Silvestre Varela and he also netted the winner against Ghana.
However, these were isolated moments of quality and his lack of fitness meant that he was often behind the play. Unfortunately for him, his team mates seemed unable to comprehend that they needn’t rely solely on Ronaldo in order to win. Whilst Group G was difficult, Portugal should still have been able to qualify in second place. The fact that they didn’t was down to the shadow cast by Ronaldo. Every time Portugal surged forward, their players seemed paralysed with fear and seemed eager to offload to their talisman as soon as possible. No player dared to pass forward or to take on a defender. Every pass went either square or backwards to wherever Ronaldo’s struggling knee allowed him to be.
The Portugal players forgot that they were in fact international footballers capable of taking on other international teams and instead decided that their most viable tactic would be to find Ronaldo at every available opportunity. Such slavish deference to one player is not becoming of a world cup finalist. Only Uruguay and their dependence on Luis Suarez came close to Portugal’s hero worshipping mentality.
Had Ronaldo been fully fit and able to surge into the penalty box with and without the ball as is his wont, the tactic might have worked. Portugal might have beaten both USA and Ghana (Germany always looked to be too strong) and would now be preparing for a very evenly poised second round match with Belgium. As it turned out, Ronaldo was not able to influence games in the manner he has become accustomed to and Portugal have left the tournament with barely a whimper.
Though Ronaldo will be disappointed with his return of one goal and one assist, it is not his fault that Portugal have been knocked out. However, the yawning chasm in class between himself and his team has been at the centre of their problems.