Portugal head to Russia as European champions after their unlikely Euro 2016 triumph in France. There is little doubt that captain and talisman Cristiano Ronaldo is eager for his team to follow in the footsteps of neighbors Spain by winning two consecutive major tournaments. However, fulfilling a lifetime’s ambition by winning the World Cup may prove a step too far for the five-time World Player of the Year and his teammates.
Topping their World Cup qualifying group on goal difference ahead of Switzerland, Portugal booked their ticket to Russia thanks in no small measure to Ronaldo and his 15 goals.
The European champions bounced back from an opening round defeat to Switzerland by winning their remaining nine fixtures. Ronaldo apart, however, Portugal’s squad looks a little short on quality in comparison to favorites Brazil, Germany and Spain.
2018 marks Portugal’s seventh appearance at the World Cup finals and their fifth in a row. Their best performance came on their debut in 1966, when they finished third after losing to hosts England in the semi-finals. They also reached the semis in 2006, losing to France. Meanwhile, they went out in the group stage in both 2002 and 2014, and lost to Spain in the round of 16 in 2010.
But after the euphoria of winning Euro 2016, even the most ardent aficionado of A Selecao das Quinas would admit that their victory was largely unexpected and was achieved in a pragmatic, attritional style uncomfortably similar to that of Greece at Euro 2004.
Portugal’s success in recent years has been in large part down to coach Fernando Santos, who oversaw a significant turnaround in form after replacing Paulo Bento following an embarrassing home defeat against Albania in a Euro 2016 qualifier. Santos subsequently led Portugal to the Euro 2016 title and has lost only once in 29 competitive internationals.
The 63-year-old is a former defender who played for Estoril and Maritimo. He has coached all Portugal’s “big three” clubs – Benfica, Porto and Sporting – and led Greece to Euro 2012 and the 2014 World Cup.
A glance at Santos’ squad shows a mix of experienced players and exciting young talent who have come through the youth ranks.
Santos shocked a lot of pundits by dropping the ever-present Nani (the third most capped player in Portugal’s history), the hero of the Euro 2016 final, Eder, and the Barcelona pair of Nelson Semedo and Andre Gomes. A Portugal team without these four would have been unthinkable a few short months ago.
New attacking talent comes in the form of Andre Silva and Goncalo Guedes, who will be hoping to replace the likes of Nani and Quaresma in the near future.
Portugal’s system is built on a solid defense with relatively few goalscoring chances being created, in the hope that Ronaldo will need just half a chance to score. The skipper has formed an impressive partnership with Andre Silva and their link-up play will be vital if Portugal are to have a successful tournament.
As Portugal’s all-time record appearance maker and goalscorer, Ronaldo is unquestionably the leader of the team, and has scored for Portugal in their last seven major tournaments.
In his 15 years of international football, Ronaldo has helped Portugal to one European championship title, a runners-up spot, a semifinal and a World Cup semifinal.
But while Portugal are lucky to be able to call on Ronaldo’s talents, they are often too reliant on him to produce the goods. There is a sense that Ronaldo is both the problem and the solution for Portugal. Although his goals have rescued them on numerous occasions, his insistence on taking, and often wasting, every free-kick is a source of exasperation for fans and teammates alike.
They will face a tricky tie against Spain in their first Group B match, but should have enough to see off Iran and Morocco to progress from the group stage.
Portugal will have to punch above their weight more than once if they are to lift the World Cup trophy. If Ronaldo lives up to his billing, they have a chance of beating anyone. But if he struggles, Portugal will be unlikely to get too far beyond the group stage.