The date is July 4th 2004 and host nation Portugal are entertaining Greece in the final of the European Championships in Lisbon. This should have been the perfect scenario for Portugal to claim their first major football trophy on the international scene – should have.
Coining the overused and exhausted phrase ‘football can be a cruel game’ couldn’t be more fitting for the Portuguese. Against all the odds the Greeks pulled off one of the biggest upsets in international football’s lengthy history. In front of a shell shocked home crown, Angelo Charisteas scored the only goal of the game, with Greece’s only shot on target in the 57th minute. A nation in mourning – a young Ronaldo in tears – Greece ecstatic.
Fast forward twelve years and Portugal still await their first international honour – but it’s not for the want of trying. A fourth place finish in Germany at the 2006 World Cup and a penalty shootout defeat against that all conquering Spanish team in the semi-finals of the Euro’s four years ago, is a better showing than most international teams.
So what should we make of Portugal this time around? On the back of a hugely underwhelming World Cup in Brazil two years ago, they qualified for this year’s Euro’s with seven wins out of eight, all by a single goal margin, scoring just 11 goals, in a group containing Albania, Denmark, Serbia and Armenia. They hardly set the world alight and much more will be expected of them this summer by their success starved fans.
It should be mentioned that Portugal have never failed to make it out of the group stage at a European Championships and in a group containing Iceland, Hungary and Austria you would fully expect them to keep this record up. Winner? I’m not so sure.
When you have a player of the class of Cristiano Ronaldo, you will always have a chance. A three time World Player of the Year and All-time Top Scorer for both club (Real Madrid) and country. He is their one and only true world class player. Behind him, there seems to have been a period of stagnation. Players like Ricardo Quaresma and Nani, who you seem to think have great potential, until you realise their ages, 32 and 29 respectively (especially Quaresma, how is he 32?). His best days are certainly behind him, without him even coming remotely close to achieving his full potential.
This is not by any stretch of the imagination a squad with the strength of their so called ‘Golden Generation’. This generation in the early to mid-2000’s included the talents of; Luis Figo, Rui Costa, Deco, Ricardo Carvalho (still harbouring hopes of participation this summer at the age of 37), Nuno Gomes, Pauleta and add the skills of a young Cristiano Ronaldo and they were some force. However, there are young talents starting to make waves in their homeland and across Europe, since making the final of the Under 21 European Championships in 2015 – a tournament they really ought to have won.
It is with these young players that manager Fernando Santos has some big decisions to make this summer when announcing his final squad. Bernardo Silva, perhaps the most exciting player from this group; small in stature and brave on the ball, demonstrating excellent vision and the ability to beat his man. This young playmaker made the under 21’s tick last summer and was a catalyst in the ruthless 5-0 obliteration of Germany at the semi-final stage. The 21 year old already has experience of playing high level European football, having played for AS Monaco since 2014.
Add in central midfielder William Carvalho – anyone who watches Sky Sports News when the transfer window is open will know who he is, seemingly in a never ending transfer pursuit by Arsenal. Then there is Andre Gomes, although suffering a dip in form at Valencia (who isn’t?), he is still a player of impressive physique and technical ability.
The Portuguese manager will also have to make a decision regarding the precocious talent of Renato Sanches. The exciting 18 year old was relatively unknown until this season. Having worked his way through the Benfica youth ranks, Sanches has established himself in the first team since making his debut in October. With his strength and bravery on the ball Sanches’ talents haven’t gone unnoticed by the national team, earning his first international cap in the recent friendly against Bulgaria.
Maybe it is too early for him to make a real impact at Euro 2016, but if Portugal do take him then they would certainly have a potential ace up their sleeve. With these and other young players available to Fernando Santos, you can see that there are reasons to be optimistic for followers of the Portuguese national team.
If the youngsters can keep their feet on the ground and not have their heads turned by fame and money, then Portugal could be heading towards their second ‘Golden Generation’. Whatever you may think of him, Ronaldo could play a big part in the young players immediate development. If they follow his example of hard work, dedication and focus on the game, then this could bring them genuine success. Too often we talk about ‘potential’ only to see young talented footballers fade away to become bit part players or simply slide down the leagues.
Looking at the Portugal squad, you would have to say that realistically they fall into the ‘dark horses’ category. If Ronaldo clicks and their young talents hold their nerve they may have an outside shot of winning the tournament – but in reality success this summer will be reaching the semi-final stage.