A stuttering qualification campaign, a series of injury setbacks, a coach with more critics than advocates and a tough draw all combine to exacerbate a national trait of the Portuguese – an innate pessimism.
Group of Death? Bring it on!
Many football pundits quickly wrote off Carlos Queiroz’s team after they were drawn against Brazil, the Ivory Coast and North Korea in Group G. The logical thinking says Brazil will win all their games and North Korea will lose all of theirs, making the runners-up spot and a place in the last 16 a straight fight between Portugal and Ivory Coast. And the most likely prize for the winners of that particular duel will be none other than many people’s favourites for the tournament – Spain.
But there is hope. Portugal tend to produce their best when they are not expected to do much.
Indeed, a decade of considerable success (qualification for six consecutive major tournaments, three semi-finals and one final) began when Portugal were drawn in a seemingly impossible group in Euro 2000, facing England, Germany and Romania. A stunning performance saw Luis Figo, Rui Costa, Nuno Gomes and company storm to three group victories and embark on a run that would only end in extra time of the semi-final against eventual champions, France.
Figo and Costa and the rest of the much-feted ‘golden generation’ are now in the past, but with Cristiano Ronaldo, Nani and Simão looking to provide a healthy supply line for naturalised Brazilian-born striker Liedson, Portugal’s attacking talent is undoubtedly among the very best on show in South Africa.
Less sexy, less documented but no less important is what Carlos Queiroz has achieved at the other end of the pitch. The fearsome Bruno Alves and stylish Ricardo Carvalho complement each other brilliantly at the heart of Portugal’s defence. Protected by the dominant Pepe as the holding midfielder, Portugal has assembled a rock solid backbone that played a huge part in turning around a poor start to World Cup qualifying.
Just two goals conceded in their last 10 competitive matches, and none in their last six games, are statistics that show how effective Portugal’s defensive organisation has become.
With a watertight defence, an attack that will pose problems to any opposition, Queiroz’s biggest worries – and biggest doubts – are likely to be in midfield. More on that in the next post as we attempt to second-guess the squad make-up before it is officially announced on 10 May.