Photo: Fernando Santos oversees a change at the recently concluded Euro Championships. Santos guided Portugal to their first major football title with a dramatic 1-0 extra time win over hosts France. (Getty Images)
A journey which dates back to 1966, finishing third at the World Cup on English soil, thanks largely to the late Black Panther, the legendary Eusebio, has come to an end thanks to a new breed of Portuguese stars. For years Portugal has gone mighty close to lifting their first international title, particularly at home at the 2004 European Championships, but finally the wait has ended thanks to an inspiring team effort led by Cristiano Ronaldo. After the endeavours of Eusebio and Nene, the Golden Generation was seen as the saviour of this great football nation but it was players of little experience on the international stage and arguably less pedigree, who got the job done.
In the 1960s through to the 70s the football world was captivated by the skill and blissful desire of Benfica’s Eusebio as he took charge of his nation with the hope of finding glory. His brightest moment came at the 1966 World Cup in England where he led the A Selecao to a third place finish, scoring an impressive 9 goals in the tournament. The mantle was taken up by Benfica striker Nene in the 70s to the mid 80s and he helped A Selecao to the semifinals of the 1984 Euros. A group stage exit from the 1986 World Cup followed, however the consistency of the Portuguese on the big stages started with the emergence of the ‘Golden Generation.’
Winners of the 1989 and 1991 FIFA U20 World Cups, the Portuguese Superliga had been able to produce talents of the highest quality in the form of Joao Pinto, Fernando Couto, Paulo Sousa, Luis Figo and Rui Costa. Benfica was again the leading light in terms of the development of young players as was Sporting Lisbon and FC Porto. Since 1996, Portugal has competed in every European Championship reaching the last eight on every occasion. They’ve also booked their place at the World Cup on every occasion since 2002 suffering group stage exits in 2002 and most recently two years ago in Brazil.
With the likes of Figo, Rui Costa, Couto, Simao Sabrosa, Deco and Pauleta failing to deliver on their tremendous promise, the burden fell on the shoulders of one Cristiano Ronaldo. A modern-day superstar and dubbed as one of the greatest players in the history of the beautiful game, Ronaldo suffered immensely with his nation until his moment of ecstasy. Leading up to the 2004 Euros, Portuguese Football took centre stage as Jose Mourinho master-minded Champions League glory for FC Porto. Portugal reached the Euro final on home soil against Greece but could not get over the line to make it a perfect 2004 double. The wealth of expectations may have been on the shoulder of Figo and others but this young star, Ronaldo, was quickly making a name for himself at Manchester United and could not hide the pain of losing on that night in Lisbon.
Ronaldo experienced another heartbreak two years later as his Portuguese team was eliminated from the World Cup in the semifinal by a Zinedine Zidane-led French team. This time Ronaldo was one of the stars for his nation with the likes of Figo, Deco, Ricardo Carvalho, Hugo Viana, Simao and Pauleta. More failure for Ronaldo and Portugal was to follow as a quarterfinal exit at the 2008 Euros was followed by a Round of 16 knock-out at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
Despite their competiveness and consistency at major tournaments, it was the thought of many in the football world that there was too much pressure on Ronaldo. There were times when it was mentioned that he carried his nation singlehandedly and as such he was never short grabbing the headlines for his nation across the globe. Plying his trade with Real Madrid since the summer of 2009, Ronaldo had the opportunity to spoil the Spanish party in the semifinal of the 2012 Euros but never got the opportunity in the penalty shout-out. The former Red Devil chose to take the fifth and final kick however the Spanish claimed victory before Portugal could take their last spot-kick in the shoot-out.
With football returning to its ‘home’ in the 2014 World Cup on Brazilian soil, the hope of A Selecao once again rested on the shoulders of a Ronaldo who was not at full fitness. That hypothesis may have been proven as the Portuguese were sent packing after the conclusion of the group stages. It was a colossal failure for a nation that had been there or there-about with the best nations in the world in previous tournament. However, their finest hour was right around the corner.
It seemed destiny for A Selecao began in September 2014 when Fernando Santos was appointed new head coach after defeat in their first Euro 2016 qualifier against Albania. Santo delivered 7 victories in the 7 remaining qualifiers but most importantly he introduced several young players who have been emerging as the next generation who will succeed Ronaldo, Nani, Pepe and company. The likes of William Carvalho, Joao Mario, Danilo Pereira, Cedric Soares, Raphael Guerreiro, Andre Gomes and Renato Sanches became an integral part of his squad to form an excellent mixture of youthful exuberance and experience.
The veteran manager knew he had some good talent on his hands and had to find a way to get Ronaldo in possession of the ball as much as possible in and around the penalty area. In the last 2-3 seasons, Ronaldo has changed his style and now focuses on finding space in the final third where he can hit the back of the net. The days of his solo runs and solo goals are perhaps behind him and as such the Real Madrid superstar is dependent on the service he’s able to get from midfield and from wide positions.
Santos’ Portuguese outfits started the tournament playing some exciting and expanding brand of football, moving the ball from the back to the final third at will with their full backs pushing high up the pitch. The tempo and intensity of their play from start to finish was excellent while the movement off the ball between Nani, Ronaldo and Andre Gomes in the final third was simply scintillating. Despite their flamboyance, A Selecao found goals hard to come by as the final touch kept eluding them. They were creating great openings and opportunities but even the goal machine Ronaldo struggled in front of goal.
Santos could take comfort that his boys were playing well and creating chances. Guerreiro and Pepe were exceptional at the back while Andre Gomes, Nani and Ronaldo kept the opposition’s defense in doubt with their movement. Young Sanches brought his power and good dribbling ability to the fore when needed the most as the starlets took over from big names amongst them. While they were a lot more cautious with their approach in the knock-out stages, it was evident their confidence and belief grew with every step they took.
It took a wonderfully ferocious strike from Eder to seal their dream that began in 1966 and lift a major trophy but their achievement was down to Santos and his bravery. The decision to drop his best midfielder and dictator Joao Moutinho to play 18-year-old Sanches was huge. His trust in the less experienced Cedric in place of Veirinha at right back in the knock-out stages was also a stroke of genius. For most of the knock-out stages and in the final his midfield three – William, Adrien Silva and Sanches – were all from the Portuguese league and are all quite inexperienced. There also seemed to be a lot of trust in Joao Mario as he started all but one game ahead of Ricardo Quaresma alongside Ronaldo and Nani in attack.
Their success story may have started in 2002 with Figo and company laying the foundation for Ronaldo’s generation. Their participation in every major tournament cannot be understated as part of their road to international success. They’ve been knocking on the door for quite some time now reaching the semis at the World Cup and the Euros. Perhaps it’s just destiny for A Selecao as the trophy that eluded them in Lisbon 12 years ago is now officially based in Portugal, one of the best nations of nurturing talent especially in the modern day.
With their first international trophy in the bag, Portugal must move on and target another major title with the World Cup due in two years on Russian soil. The generation of Ronaldo, Pepe, Nani, Quaresma and others are fast approaching the end, however on the evidence of the just concluded Euros there is more than enough to work with. Rui Patrico and Anthony Lopes will be around for quite some time as will Sanches, Gomes, Joao Mario, William, Cedric and the most consistent of them all Raphael Guerreiro. The new Borussia Dortmund signing took his game to new heights, game after game and was perhaps Portugal’s best player at the tournament. The 22-year-old can also be placed up there as one of the best if not the best player of the tournament.