Another Euros, another Portuguese semifinal. Portugal’s victory over Poland on penalties means that they have now reached their fourth semifinal in the last five European Championships and their fifth in total. It is a formidable record, one that bears comparison with the giants of the European game (Germany, Italy, France and Spain), but there is one big problem – for all their consistency in reaching the last four of a European Championship, Portugal have only reached the final once and never actually won the thing. In fact, there is an argument to be made that Portugal are not only perennial under-achievers but the greatest under-achievers of all in international football, certainly in Europe and arguably in the whole world.
Can Portugal’s Perennial Under-Achievers Finally Win a Major Title?
Of course, there are many great under-achievers in international football. England, for example, have just marked the 50th anniversary of their only major tournament win (the 1966 World Cup) by losing 2-1 to Iceland, almost certainly their worst defeat on the international stage since the 1950 team, which contained Tom Finney, Billy Wright and many other legendary names, lost to the amateurs and expats of the USA in the World Cup in Brazil. Nevertheless, for all that they have now made it a neat half-century of hurt, England have at least won that one major international trophy. Portugal have not.
Eusebio’s Glory Years
That is despite the fact that Portugal have produced at least three truly outstanding international teams in the last 50 years or so. The first, of course, was the 1960s vintage, built around the brilliant Benfica team that finally broke Real Madrid’s monopoly of the European Cup, with Mário Coluna dominating midfield and his fellow Mozambique-born star, the incomparable Eusebio, proving himself one of the greatest strikers ever. That Portuguese side peaked in England in 1966, when they beat everyone from the reigning champions Brazil to the unknown underdogs North Korea before finally succumbing to England in the semifinal, with Bobby Charlton scoring two stunning long-range strikes against them. As if to prove how much that defeat still rankles in Portugal, when Jose Mourinho recently became Manchester United manager and was introduced to Sir Bobby (as he now is), he told him that it was a pleasure to meet him even though he had broken his and his countrymen’s hearts in 1966.
Fernando Chalana’s Time
After that outstanding team broke up, it was nearly twenty years before Portugal returned to the main stage of the international game. That was in 1984, when they not only qualified for the European Championships in France but reached the semifinal, where they took part in a match that eclipsed even the classics of ’66. Inspired by their brilliant winger, Fernando Chalana, Portugal twice took the lead against the hosts before finally being beaten by a 119th minute French winner, scored by Michel Platini, right at the end of probably the greatest ever European Championship match. (Only the Czech Republic’s 4-3 win over Holland in Euro 2004 comes close, but that was a first round match rather than a semifinal and so has to cede top spot.)
Luis Figo’s Team
If Portugal ’84 were something of a one-man team (that man being Chalana, who stayed on in France after the tournament to play for Bordeaux alongside French stars Alain Giresse and Jean Tigana), the third great post-war Portuguese side were not just a superb team but a superb squad. In particular, they had so many fine midfielders that Sérgio Conceição, a fabulous winger who scored a first-round hat-trick against Germany in the 2000 European Championships, was far from a regular starter. Portugal reached the semifinal that year, again only losing out to the eventual winners (and their undoubted nemesis), France, at the very end of extra time, as Zinedine Zidane converted a controversial 117th minute penalty.
That team, comprised of members of Portugal’s so-called “golden generation” such as Luis Figo and Rui Costa, peaked on home soil in 2004 when they finally reached the European Championship final, only to lose (for the second time in the tournament) to that year’s surprise winners, Greece. For many distraught Portugal fans, it seemed as if their country would never win an international tournament.
This Generation, Cristiano Ronaldo’s Generation
Now, of course, Portugal have another chance to do precisely that, even if this year’s team hardly bears comparison with the great Portuguese teams of the past, at least on the evidence of their matches at Euro 2016 so far. It is quite remarkable, and an indictment of the expansion of the number of competing sides to 24, that even though they are now in the last four Portugal have won only one of their five matches so far in normal time. Worse still, the country that Ruud Gullit famously called the creators of “sexy football” have been playing the polar opposite of it in this tournament – “erectile dysfunction football”, perhaps. They only scraped into the knockout stages by coming third in their group and in their two knockout games so far, against Croatia in the last 16 and Poland in the last eight, they have been involved in probably the two most boring games of the tournament.
Of course, having produced so many stylish, star-studded sides in the past who eventually lost (usually in the last four), Portugal will not care a whit if they have to fight and even bite their way to victory this time. This year’s team are very much made in the image of their manager, Fernando Santos, who led a largely star-free Greece to the knockout stages of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. In Pepe and José Fonte, they have perhaps the best centreback pairing at the tournament (Italy, of course, play with a central defensive trio); the midfield may have no-one to match past greats such as Figo but is full of youthful brio, as embodied by 18-year-old Renato Sanches, who scored Portugal’s only goal from open play against Poland; and up front, of course, they have Ronaldo.
The Greatest Portuguese Star?
It is a testament to the enduring greatness of Ronaldo over the last decade that he has now largely surpassed even the feats of his famous namesake, who is now usually referred to as the “original”, the “Brazilian” or even the plain old “fat” Ronaldo. However, despite winning European Cups with both Manchester United and Real Madrid (the most recent of which came just over a month ago), Ronaldo has never truly shone at international level since his first tournament in 2004. And so far this summer, he has been a pale imitation of the sublime player he is at Real Madrid, scoring twice against Hungary but doing little else to justify his wondrous reputation. In the semifinal against Poland, he hit what may have been his own personal all-time low, missing at least three golden chances – indeed, he didn’t just miss them but completely miscued them, on at least one occasion playing a complete air shot.
Nevertheless, the feeling persists that Ronaldo, who is now universally acclaimed as Portugal’s greatest ever player (even ahead of the immortal Eusebio), will still make his mark on this European Championship, and there are two main reasons for that.
The Euro 2016 Campaign
The first is that for Ronaldo and the rest of the Portugal team this is now effectively a two-match tournament, with just the semifinal and the final, if they get there, to negotiate. Of course, that is an enormous “just”, as they will play either Wales (who are inspired by his Real Madrid team-mate, Gareth Bale) in the semifinal, before almost certainly facing one of the true giants of the European game – France, Italy or Germany – in the final, always assuming, of course, that tiny Iceland do not produce another earthquake-sized shock by beating the hosts in the quarterfinal. Nevertheless, if the rest of the team can keep up their hard running in midfield and their discipline in defence, Ronaldo surely cannot go on missing gilt-edged chances.
The second reason for Portuguese optimism is that Ronaldo now has an added incentive, if he needed one, to win this tournament. This summer has been the only one in recent times in which the European Championship has been staged at the same time as the Copa America, its South American equivalent, because this year’s Copa, of course, is a special “centenary” edition to mark the first ever staging of the tournament in 1916. By playing side by side at the same time, if continents apart, in international tournaments, it has been possible to make a genuine comparison of how Ronaldo and Messi fare in the international game, rather than the club version, where they are invariably surrounded by other global stars.
Messi was sublime in the Copa America, breaking Argentina’s all-time scoring record, until the final, where he missed – spectacularly – a penalty in the shootout against Chile, who ultimately retained the Copa they had won (also against Argentina) last year. He then emotionally and apparently definitively announced his retirement from the international game, without winning a major tournament with Argentina. (The Olympic Gold that he won with Argentina in 2008 doesn’t cut it, I’m afraid – “major” means continental or global football-only tournaments.)
Even as millions of his fellow Argentinians, including many of his current team-mates, plead with Messi to reverse his decision and continue playing for Argentina at least until the World Cup in Russia in 2018, Ronaldo knows that Euro 2016 is his best ever chance to finally get one up on his rival for the title of the greatest player of the last decade, if not the greatest player ever. He may have won fewer European Cups than Messi (three to Messi’s four) and far fewer Spanish league titles (one to Messi’s eight), but if he can finally find his form and lead Portugal to victory in the European Championship Ronaldo will have elevated himself above Messi, perhaps forever, in the international game.
Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal during the UEFA Euro 2016 round of 16 match between Croatia and Portugal on June 25, 2016 at the stade Bollaert-Delelis in Lens, France.(Photo by VI Images via Getty Images)