Fernando Santos, the Portuguese national team coach, faces big questions three months prior to Euro 2016: how to get the best out of Cristiano Ronaldo in his last tournament and avoid another disappointment? New blood or international experience? Tired legs and minds or new and inexperienced ones?
The Portuguese national team record in big tournaments is not stellar. It is difficult to classify it as mediocre if we consider the country’s size but the truth is that there have been occasions when ‘disappointment’ was the best word to characterise the Portuguese fans feelings at the end of the competition.
Probably the best example of that disappointment came on the evening of the 4th of July 2004, when a packed Estádio da Luz saw its home team lose the final to Greece (Angelos Charisteas, a name forever engraved in Portuguese fans minds). That team was a mix of new (the nineteen year old Ronaldo), old (the 31 year old Luis Figo) and imported (Deco) talent and, to this day, Portuguese fans speak of those days with true sadness.
The 1966 World Cup in England was responsible for another disappointment, but in this case, the Portuguese team were not expected to shock the football world like they did. When Eusébio was carried off the field in tears after the semi-final loss to the home team, the Portuguese were more proud than sad. They knew they had just made history and even if they did not win it all, they knew they had won the hearts of football fans all around the world.
The so called Portuguese golden generation seemed to promise big things when the likes of Figo, Rui Costa, Fernando Couto and Paulo Sousa won two under 20 World Cups in 1989 and 1991. Unfortunately the promise was never fulfilled.
In 1996 a stunning goal by the Czech Republic’s Karel Poborsky ended the Portuguese dream in the quarter-finals. In 1998 the incomprehensible decision of French referee Marc Batta to send off Rui Costa in the last qualifying match, in Germany, lead the way for a Ulf Kirsten goal that would kill the Portuguese hopes. In 2000 a great Portuguese campaign was interrupted by Zidane’s golden goal in the semis, and in 2002, that generation’s last chance, Murphy’s Law got the best of the team and they came home eliminated in the group stage.
Fast forward to 2016 and the Portuguese find themselves in familiar territory. They got accustomed to saying the best footballer in the world is Portuguese (even if that’s not always the case) but the tradition of coming up short when it matters is still alive and kicking.
Ronaldo is now 31 years old. He is still playing at his best but it is difficult to believe by the time the Russia 2018 World Cup arrives he will still be scoring 50 goals a year. So, this is Portugal’s last chance to take advantage of having the ‘world’s best player’ (cough cough). Through the qualifying tournament Fernando Santos chose to play Ronaldo alongside players like Tiago, Ricardo Carvalho, Danny or Meireles, players who are all in their thirties and past their prime.
The preference of experience over young talent was understandable as the priority was to qualify for the Euros, but once the place in the group stage was sealed, we can’t help asking Mr. Santos a few questions: is this the best team for Euro 2016? Did you have a chance to watch the Under 21 European Championship, last summer, Fernando?
Portugal’s under 21 national team reached the final (which they lost to Sweden) last summer, and it was largely due to the great talent of a handful of players. Bernardo Silva, Wiliam Carvalho and João Mário grabbed the scouts’ attention although the team, as a whole, was solid and showed that Santos could (and should!) take them into consideration when selecting the squad for Euro 2016.
These last couple of friendlies already give some indication of what Mr. Santos’ intentions are. João Mário seems to have confirmed his place in the team and Wiliam ‘the Wall’ Carvalho is now battling for the number 6 position with another young prospect (Danilo). Fernando Santos now seems comfortable with the idea that Ronaldo, in this stage of his career, should be a striker in the national team, and there is no other possible strategy than to surround him with the best talent available, even if this means having a 20 year old Bernardo Silva in the number 10 position or, in some games, having an 18 year old Sanches helping out in the midfield.
Tiago’s, Meireles’, Danny’s, Carvalho’s and even Moutinho’s time is officially over. If the Portuguese don’t want to wake up one day and realise Ronaldo’s time is also over, the time to make the changes is now! So, please, Mr. Santos! From one Portuguese to another: give the kids a chance! Ronaldo’s clock is ticking…