Just like homo-sapiens we consider football too as a living organism. It is actually very complicated, but neither of them is susceptible to being manipulated. Evolution & up-gradation are part and parcel in both scenarios. The twain brings billions of people together, and it survives through critics. Such is one live scenario of the growth and fascinating history behind the rise of ‘The Portugal National Football Team’. A country that was forbidden by the cruel and dictatorial rule of Antonio Salazar through generations which plagued the footballing talent in the past, to becoming the powerhouse of European football in the 21st Century, the fruition tale of the Seleção is something that every soccer fan must be aware of.
Portugal’s first participation in a major tournament final was in the year 1966. They were generally considered a team that could only crawl its way until the qualifying rounds and the early World Cup attempts just aroused a sense of disproportionality to harm the sporting ethos among the fans. Thus, it is the only reason that until Euro 2016, Portugal had never got their hands close to any silverware. Not that they lacked some big names and dazzling stars in the past but, they had suffered some unmemorable defeats, many of them heart-breaking despite having their golden generation of players who were accompanied by a destructive streak of bad luck.
They had some virtuous playmakers such as Rui Costa who led the midfield dominantly or Deco who they managed to snatch from Brazil. In history, they had the most famed and talented striker- Eusébio, who represented the best qualities of a present-day forward, better than Ronaldo or Quaresma. He was agile, quick, creative and had the capability of scoring all manners of goals, with both feet and off his head, from all kinds of acute angles, and from both inside and outside the penalty box. They also had some pivotal lineup in defense, mainly Porto-bred centre backs like Fernando Couto, Ricardo Carvalho, Jorge Andrade, Jorge Costa and skillful forwards like Pauleta, Nuno Gomes and João Pinto. 1995-2006 is termed as the Golden generation in Portuguese football, who were a joy to watch. The Geração de Ouro (Golden Generation) group won the Under-16 European championship in 1989, finished runners-up in the Under-18 world championship in 1990, and were ultimately crowned Under-20 world champions in 1991 and were now leading the national senior squad.
Despite all these star-studded lineups and being considered favourites in every upcoming tournament, Portugal failed to find glory. Portugal’s footballing fortune scarcely seemed to improve as they failed to qualify for the 1998 FIFA World Cup. In Euro 2000 the world saw this team being crudely defeated on the extra-time of the semi-finals after Zinedine Zidane converted a penalty. In the 2002 World Cup, they were knocked out from the group stage. In the Euro 2004, Portugal entered the tournament as favourites with their finest chance to lift their first European trophy at home. This included the rising teenage talent in the name of Cristiano Ronaldo along with the country’s pre-existing golden generation and new manager Luiz Felipe Scolari. The hosts lost their first game against Greece but sailed through to the Finals toppling England and The Netherlands in the quarterfinal and the semifinal, respectively to face Greece again in finals where they were beaten 1-0 with a lone goal from a header in a game fully dominated by the Portuguese team and were labelled runners-up. In the 2006 FIFA World Cup, Thierry Henry sent them home in the semi-finals of the World Cup which ultimately got them the “Most Entertaining Team” award for their play during the tournament.
From Euro 2008 till 2012 Euro, Portugal failed to rise above quarterfinals or Round of 16 in all European competitions and FIFA World Cup. In 2012 they lost the semi-final match against Spain on penalties. In 2014 Fernando Santos was brought in to replace Paulo Bento as the coach. Santos set a benchmark as a very pragmatic architect to lead a talented squad. In the Euro 2016 where Portugal began the qualifying with a loss, Santos made sure he kept things tight at the outset. The team’s attacking strategy was built on swift, carefully designed counter-attacks that were aimed at getting the ball to Ronaldo at every conceivable opportunity. Defying all odds Portugal beat Croatia 1–0 in the Round of 16 , then defeated Poland 5–3 on penalties to reach the semi-finals and in the semi-finals, they defeated Wales to set up a dramatic final clash against the hosts, France.
The final against France was written in the stars for Portugal. Ronaldo was withdrawn midway after Dimitri Payet charged his left knee which prematurely ended the captain’s participation in the final. Weeping his heart out, Ronaldo put his hands to his face and struggled to contain the emotion as the country was set fair for its first major trophy. Ronaldo became the de facto manager and galvanized the players into performing above their strengths, into playing as a team in his absence and Éder the final substitute scored the goal of his life and wrote his name in the folklore, thus helping Portugal to find success and lift their first European title in history.
Following 2016 Euro victory, Portugal finished third in the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup. In 2018 FIFA World Cup they were eliminated in the round of 16 by Uruguay. In the inaugural season of UEFA Nations league in 2019, hosted by Portugal they lifted their second silverware to dominate and become the powerhouse in European football. Beating the Netherlands, 1-0, in the finals the team showed they are much more than a single man team as 5 of their players were included in the all-star XI. Cristiano seems to defy all norms of age and the team is primed to evolve now with the features of talent like Bernardo Silva, Bruno Fernandes and Joao Felix in the coming years. Nations league victory could just be the start of a new era in Portugal footballing history. It’ll be exciting to see how Santos keeps up the momentum in the coming years and reaches new heights.