Portugal – Bright Future Ahead

Goalden Times had classified Portugal as one of the dark horses of Euro 2012. Their performance in the tournament vindicates that. Debojyoti Chakraborty reports

Pitted against two star-studded sides in the group stages, not many in Portugal were that much optimistic of a good campaign at the Euro 2012. A few decent players and quite a few completely unknown to the vast majority of football fans worldwide; looking up to ‘The One’ aka Cristiano Ronaldo for inspiration – it was not a script that looked rosy before the tournament started. Moreover, Portugal had not fared well at the 2010 World Cup. More than their results, what disappointed fans the most was their pathetic football which lacked any sort of ambition and imagination under Carlos Queiroz.

The current manager Paulo Bento was not having a happy time either. Defender duo of Ricardo Carvalho and Jose Bosingwa refused to play for the Seleccao under him during the build-up of the tournament. Over-reliance on CR7 for goals was heavily criticised. But Bento had a vision and he stuck to it. He did not hesitate to start with Rui Patricio ahead of established shot stopper Eduardo and Patricio paid back his manager’s faith by having a brilliant tournament.

Things started pretty badly for Portugal. Not many eyebrows were raised to see Germany beating them 1-0 on matchday 1. But Denmark’s victory over the Dutch made life very difficult for the Seleccao in the Group of Death. In the second match, Portugal made life difficult for themselves against the Danes and had to rely on a last gasp winner from Silvestre Varela to clinch a 3-2 thriller. In the final group match against Netherlands, Portugal needed to at least match Denmark’s result against Germany to progress through. Things looked gloomy for them as Rafael van der Vaart put Netherlands ahead in a must-win-and-hope-for-other-results match for the Oranje. This is when Cristiano Ronaldo, who had been heavily criticized and mimicked for his performance so far in the tournament, came on to his own. His scintillating performance, cupped with a brace, put Portugal through to the knockout stages of Euro 2012.

Punching above their weight

The best footballer in the continent put up another brilliant display to seal a berth for the semis as his goal was the difference between Portugal and Czech Republic in the quarter-final match. They were unfortunate to bow out against Spain in the penalty shoot-out in the semi-final, but nevertheless they have left a lasting impression. Ronaldo may ponder over his whole life what might have been had he not held himself back for the last penalty kick (which was not required!). But he certainly had a very good tournament to be proud of, both as an individual and as the captain of a young and ambitious team.

Can hardly watch it

The results were encouraging and Portugal impressed one and all. Ronaldo took the responsibility and besides his goals and hitting the framework numerous times, charmed football lovers with his play. Joao Moutinho emerged as the star performer for them and looks set to improve as time passes by. Among youngsters, Patricio and defender Fabio Coentrao stood out and they should be nurtured with care for future development.

The core of this team is expected to remain the same for the next few years. Captain charismatic Cristiano Ronaldo does not look like slowing down – why should he, he is only 27 after all – and he will be motivated to win a silverware for his country after winning all-there-is-to-be-won at the club level. Pepe at the back and the midfield trio of Moutinho, Miguel Veloso and Raul Meireles will also be around in full throttle for some more years to come. Few players may come in and go out as part of natural footballing cycle but the team seems to be on the right track.

Not anymore a one-man team

One man looking certain to remain with the team is Paulo Bento. Amidst all the controversies before the start of the campaign, he has shown that he knows how to handle pressure. He has stuck to his principles – not selecting disinterested players – and decisions – starting with second choice goalkeeper – and has taken full responsibility for the outcome. He has galvanized the team well and has brought back an attacking flair to the team’s play. This is a commendable impact considering he only took over in the qualifying stages when things did not look all that bright.

Bento has earned the respect of his team

He, though, has plenty of work to do. His work list ought to start with finding a decent central striker. Ronaldo seems more effective if given a free roaming role. He can start wide but would naturally drift in, drop back and can create havoc in the opponent camp more often than not. For that to happen, Portugal badly needs a world class target man up front but the options are not that great. One only hopes some youngsters would develop in the next couple of years to bolster the Samba party. Portugal team seems comfortable playing a traditional 4-3-3 formation. But as the modern trends unfold, this strategy may lose out to the midfield battle against a strong team playing 4-2-3-1 (as seen against the Germans). But Bento cannot try out this new look, at least for now, as he does not have a Number 10 to dictate the game (a la Rui Costa).

Hopes flying high

In back-to-back major tournaments, Spain has proved to be the nemesis for Portugal. But the similarity ends here. If World Cup 2010 was a horror show, Euro 2012 has been the complete opposite. Fans back home and across the globe should not be disheartened with the showings from a young team. They started and ended their campaign with defeats – not too bad considering they were playing against the two top ranked teams in the tournament – but they sandwiched some praiseworthy performances in between. It was good till it lasted; Portugal will certainly hope to make it better next time.