With its 2-1 victory over the Netherlands on Sunday night in Kharkiv, Portugal qualified for the knockout stage for the fifth consecutive European Championships, a run – 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012 – no other side can match.
It is a highly impressive record for any country, but particularly so for Portugal. It’s become a victim of its own (relative) success in recent years, sometimes cast as a frequent underachiever.
However, consider that Portugal had qualified for only one European Championships until 1996, and only two World Cups before 2002. Take into account its limited resources – a population less than Belgium, a GDP lower than Romania. Put together a picture of the economic and football history of the country, and you increasingly realize that Portugal deserves great acclaim for regularly competing alongside football’s traditional powerhouses.
Maybe this time around, it can put the record straight. No one particularly fancied Portugal to win this competition, and when drawn alongside two of the three favorites, Germany and Netherlands, plus a Danish side it had finished behind in the qualification group, many predicted Portugal wouldn’t get out of Group B. But, yet again, it has. And better still, it has a fantastic draw for the quarterfinals against the Czech Republic.
“We don't claim to be favorites against the Czech Republic and it won't be easy against them,” says coach Paulo Bento. “They've shown they have the ability to turn a game, and now we must continue our work and the quality we have shown so far. Maybe then we can even reach the semifinals.”
It’s an overly modest statement, which is classic Bento – at least as Portugal coach. He plays down hype, doesn’t like to comment upon individual performances and stresses the need for togetherness, hard work and playing to his instructions. “The individual effort of players is not important,” was his initial reaction following the Netherlands match. “I'm proud of what we've done as a team and satisfied that we achieved our aim brilliantly. We have a certain kind of style, identity and ideas. The players put that into practice.”
Bento appears to have found a good balance between defense and attack. That was something that his predecessor, Carlos Queiroz, struggled to manage. Portugal’s display at the 2010 World Cup summed it up – it kept clean sheets in three of its four matches, yet also scored in only one game.
Bento has given Portugal slightly more attacking freedom. Not too much – because, frankly, Portugal doesn’t have the players to execute an extremely open game. It lacks a true No. 10 – there’s no Rui Costa, no Deco. Raul Meireles shuttles forward and links play, and Joao Moutinho offers great guile on the ball from a deeper position. But Portugal’s play is based upon the counterattack, primarily down the flanks.
It is slightly difficult to judge the success of this approach, despite the qualification. Against Germany, for example, Portugal was beaten, but not convincingly so. Against Denmark, it picked up three points but had thrown away a 2-0 lead with some basic defensive mistakes, hinting at an inability to cope with sustained pressure and aerial balls. Against the Netherlands, Portugal eventually prevailed comfortably – but versus a Dutch side needing a 2-0 win, and therefore relentlessly pushing men forward even when 1-0 up. That played into Portugal’s counterattacking mindset, a luxury it simply won’t enjoy in the knockout stages, especially if it concedes the first goal.
Inevitably, Portugal’s performances as a team are overshadowed by Cristiano Ronaldo’s individual displays, something that greatly frustrates Bento. It is hardly a drawback to have the competition’s most celebrated player at your disposal, but in the high-pressure environment of a major tournament, with constant media attention and a whole squad together in a hotel for long periods, such focus upon one man can be problematic. According to the Observer, Ronaldo has his own private suite in a hotel that needed bespoke requirements before the team arrived, including four types of sauna. It’s unknown how many were specifically for Ronaldo.
But Ronaldo commands great respect in the Portuguese dressing room, is the captain of the side and has considerably more caps, 93, than any other player. His apparent vanity and arrogance hide the fact that he is a good professional, a particularly hard worker in training, and can be a fine leader.
More importantly, he’s also the theoretical difference between Portugal being a joyless, functional side, and one that offers a considerable attacking threat. So far, he’s had an inconsistent impact upon the side, and his performances against Germany and Denmark came in for great criticism. Against Germany this was very harsh – Ronaldo did his defensive job, getting back behind the ball and helping Portugal to counter, albeit without goal-scoring success.
Against Denmark, Ronaldo’s imperfections were more conspicuous. It wasn’t merely that he wasted two fine chances in the second half, it was that his defensive duties were ignored. Danish right back Lars Jacobsen kept wandering past Ronaldo, receiving long diagonal balls and swinging in crosses. Eventually, one found Nicklas Bendtner, and Portugal almost chucked away two crucial points. All four goals Portugal has conceded at this tournament have come from moves originating in the left-back zone, where Fabio Coentrao receives little help from Ronaldo.
When Ronaldo’s misses were highlighted after the Denmark game, the winger defiantly proclaimed, “If I don’t score a single goal and Portugal win the Euros, I’ll take that right now.” It’s a reasonable statement – but he has to compensate for neglecting his defensive tasks by contributing in the final third. As such, his goal-scoring record is particularly crucial. More crucial than for most players, even center forwards.
Of course, there were no complaints after his man-of-the-match display against the Netherlands, and while Bento plays down the importance of his star individual, he’ll be desperately hoping Ronaldo can take that form into the knockout stage.
Portugal is looking to one man to a greater extent than any other side in this competition, but successful international teams generally rely upon overall cohesion and combinations of players, and Bento must decide how much individual freedom Ronaldo deserves.
Michael Cox is a freelance writer for ESPN.com. He runs zonalmarking.net.