Portugal: Perennial Underachievers?

by Neil Sherwin

Portugal have never quite delivered at international level and, with qualification for next summer’s World Cup hanging by a thread, Neil Sherwin looks at the reasons why.

The late 1990s and early 2000s promised so much for Portugal, especially after the country’s victories at the under 20 FIFA World Youth Championships in 1989 and 1991, but a decade on football fans are wondering what could, and proably should, have been.

The squads for those underage tournaments included future stars such as Fernando Couto, Luis Figo, Paulo Sousa, Joao Pinto, Rui Costa and Nuno Capucho. Figo went on to win Player of the Tournament at the European Under 21 Championships in 1994 where Portugal finished as runners up to Italy.

The so called ‘Golden Generation’ were expected to conquer all before them in Europe, and on paper they certainly looked capable of doing so.

So why is it that Portugal have never claimed a trophy at the highest level?

There have been claims that Portugal have always lacked a world class striker to compliment the array of riches in the middle of the park. Both Nuno Gomes and Pauleta have at times been clinical, indeed the latter is the county’s highest ever goalscorer with 47 goals to his name, but even the national coaches never had full faith in either, with Cristiano Ronaldo playing a number of games in the lone striker role.

Portugal v Germany - Euro 2008 Quarter Final

It could also be argued that with so many talented attacking players in midfield, there was never deemed to be a need to play with two strikers in a conventional formation. The current crop includes Ronaldo, Nani, Simao Sabrosa, Ricardo Quaresma, and Deco, and it’s not easy to fit them all in the one team. Quality out and out goalscorers however are still in short supply.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, and coach Carlos Queiroz has turned to Liedson, a recently nationalised Brazilian, in his search for a marksman. The 31 year old didn’t get his international career off to a bad start as he netted the equaliser against Denmark at the weekend having been introduced as a substitute.

Defensively there are question marks over the capabilities of right back Jose Bosingwa and they are currently without a natural full back on the left. Problems at full back are nothing new. At Euro 2004, Paulo Ferreira had an absolute shocker in the opening game defeat to Greece, and was subsequently dropped in favour of Miguel for the rest of the tournament. Ferreira did make an appearance in the final following an injury to his replacement, but yet again performed poorly as Portugal lost to, ironically enough, Greece.

The defeat to Greece in the final of the 2004 European Championships on home soil was a devestating blow to the nation. A large chunk of the ‘Golden Generation’ stepped aside having never fulfilled their promise or lived up to expectation.

At the 2006 World Cup in Germany they finished fourth, and were voted the most entertaining team of the tournament. However, again it was a disappointing result overall as they went down to a Thierry Henry penalty in the semi final against France, a game they were fancied by many to win.

Qualification for last year’s European Championships didn’t come easy as Portugal finished behind Poland in a group that included Armenia. Azerbaijan, Belgium, Finland, Kazakhstan, and Serbia. They were never too convincing throughout the campaign, and that form carried into the tournament itself.

After two wins secured a place in the quarter finals, a second string side was undone by Switzerland in the final group game, and coach Phil Scolari announced he would be leaving his position after the tournament. The decision to make such a  common knowledge in the middle of a big tournament was baffling to say the least, and it would be wrong to say that it had no impact on the players who exited at the quarter final stages at the hands of Germany.

The current qualifying campaign for next year’s World Cup has not gone to plan, with only two wins from the first seven games. Sitting in fourth spot at the moment behind Denmark, Hungary and Sweden, automatic qualification as group winners is almost certainly impossible, and a place in the playoffs is the best that can be hoped for.

Queiroz has many doubters, and since he took over from Scolari, Portugal have dropped from 9th to 17th in the FIFA World Rankings. Failure to qualify for South Africa will surely see the end of his tenure.

This Wednesday’s away trip to Hungary will make or break the campaign for Portugal. A win could seem them jump into that all important second spot and put their fate in their own hands. Anything else may mean that one of the world’s most exciting sides will be watching the 2010 World Cup from the comfort of their Iberian homes.

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