Covilha, Cristiano and the championship
It has been a year of sharp contrasts for Portuguese football that can be best described via a trio of major bones of contention; Covilha, Cristiano and the championship.
Covilha is a small city in central Portugal, around 300km to the north-east of Lisbon, hitherto seldom pinpointed as a key spot in Portuguese football's rich tapestry. It was there, however, that the bumpy and awkward reign of national team coach Carlos Queiroz started to inexorably fall away at the seams. While Portugal had a pre-World Cup training camp in May, Portuguese Anti-Doping Authority (ADoP) drug testers arrived for a random check early one morning. Queiroz reacted belligerently to this and was suspended after an inquiry following the team's return from South Africa.
As Portugal spluttered through their opening Euro 2012 qualifiers in a state of insufferable flux, we were exposed to the unedifying sight of Sir Alex Ferguson's former right-hand man shuffling around after his team like a wealthy stalker, paying €900 of his own money to watch the game against Cyprus in Guimaraes from a hospitality box.
With the Portuguese Football Federation (FPF) backed by Secretary of State for Youth and Sport Laurentino Dias, Queiroz never stood a chance and departed his post in September after weeks of bureaucratic bungling left Portugal in a perilous position for Euro 2012. Though worthy of a certain degree of sympathy, Queiroz had nevertheless been the architect of his own downfall to a large degree. Covilha hadn't been his first misdemeanour - he'd already got away with scuffling with a journalist at Lisbon airport some months before - but the team's pallid displays at the World Cup were the major catalyst for making him so vulnerable, after a painful qualifying campaign.
His successor Paulo Bento was nobody's ideal choice, but the sharp upswing in Portugal's performances since shows just how desperately stuck things had become under Queiroz. Perhaps Bento's greatest achievement is getting the best out of Cristiano Ronaldo again. In fact, the Real Madrid man scored as many goals for Portugal in the first two games of Bento's tenure as he had in the whole of Queiroz's.
The year of Portugal's premier player and talisman has been a strange one. It seems unusual that we're indulging in anything other than unrelenting praise for a man who has scored 35 goals in 38 La Liga appearances in this calendar year (17 goals in 16 league games in 2010-11 alone), but the perfectionism that spurs Ronaldo to such Herculean heights remains an elephant in the dressing room.
Never was his frustration at a trophyless year more clear than in South Africa. He cut a lonesome figure, marooned in the final third of Queiroz's ultra-defensive system. One of the enduring images of the tournament was footage of a downcast Ronaldo telling the on-pitch camera crew to "f*** off, go and film the winners instead," at the end of the second round defeat to Spain.
His brilliance for Real Madrid is undeniable, but his individualistic bent is cast into sharp relief by Barcelona's aesthetic collectivism. Rumours are again circulating of problems between Ronaldo and club captain and icon Iker Casillas, stemming from Casillas' girlfriend, glamorous TV presenter Sara Carbonero and her description of the winger as "selfish." In September Casillas had defended his better half, attempting to defuse the situation by arguing that "...Cristiano is selfish, but in the good sense of the word."
Yet in December, El Mundo Deportivo (admittedly an unabashedly pro-Barcelona publication) claimed there was a "total fracture" in the relationship between the two team-mates, after heated text messages were exchanged over Carbonero's comments. Ronaldo himself is painfully aware that avalanches of goals only bury idle chatter for so long; team trophies are what is required to fully brush the gossip aside.
Domestically, the eternal struggle between traditional giants Benfica and the latter-day behemoths of Porto twisted to and fro more in 2010 than in any other recent year. The Eagles drew first blood, sweeping to only a second national championship since 1994 in imperious style, scoring over 100 goals in all competitions, yet seven months further forward, the title already looks set to take the return journey to its habitual home in the north.
Most will point to Porto's five-goal beasting of Benfica at the Dragao in November as where the balance of power definitively changed hands, but the seeds were sown in the corresponding fixture of the previous season, back in April. Benfica had arrived in northern Portugal needing just a point to clinch the title but departed vanquished after a more bruising encounter than is common in Portuguese football, as the deposed champions summoned pride from deep within and refused to be humiliated by their despised rivals.
Porto have been leaner and hungrier this campaign under their fine young coach, Andre Villas Boas. Their resurgence has reshaped the league, with Benfica having only three points less than at the same point last season. The Dragons have been led by the league's stand-out player of 2010: Hulk. The Brazilian was simply sensational following his March return from suspension - over December 2009's Luz tunnel fracas - and has been unrelenting ever since. He has rattled in 23 goals in 33 games in all competitions, provided a plethora of assists and Porto have won 19 and drawn two in 21 league games since his return. The only pity is that Hulk's rise is such that he is unlikely to stay at Porto to fire their Champions League campaign.
No review of 2010 is complete without a hat-tip to Domingos Paciencia's Braga, with the former Porto striker leading the club to a best-ever league finish of runners-up, on a minuscule budget. Their Champions League adventure was as impressive as it was unexpected. Matheus' second goal against Arsenal, smashed into Lukasz Fabianski's top corner after the striker dismissed the attention of three defenders, showed that Braga had grasped the self-confidence necessary to prosper at this level, albeit a touch too late. Sadly their league performance since suggests that the general hegemony of os tres grandes (the big three) is unlikely to permanently threatened soon.