Ricardo Quaresma is enjoying his “second football life”. Once regarded as a greater talent than Cristiano Ronaldo, Quaresma never quite scaled the heights many expected of him.
Like Ronaldo, a product of Sporting’s famous Alcochete academy, he always struggled to emerge from the shadow of the four-time Ballon d’Or winner, international teammate and his great friend.
The decision to move to the Middle East when still in his twenties apparently confirmed his place in the pantheon of “Great Unfulfilled Football Talents”. But another chapter was to be written.
Over the last few seasons, Quaresma has been in fine form for club and country, and, happily for Seleção fans, his key contributions to the Portuguese national team in its finest hour has completely re-written his legacy.
In the summer of 2003, Quaresma and Ronaldo both made highly publicised moves to two of Europe’s most prestigious clubs, Barcelona and Manchester United respectively. Portuguese fans relished the possibility of the two exceptionally gifted goal-scoring wingers causing havoc down either flank for opposing defenders for the next decade, but it never came to pass.
While Ronaldo went on to a phenomenally decorated career at Old Trafford and Real Madrid afterwards, Quaresma’s path involved bouncing from club to club amidst bouts of inconsistency and controversy. Quaresma’s time at Barcelona ended with him falling out with manager Frank Rijkaard, with the Portuguese refusing to play for the club again. This would not be the last time Quaresma’s fiery temperament got in the way of him making progress in his career.
Quaresma returned to Portugal, joining FC Porto, where he enjoyed his best years of club football between 2004 and 2008. But on the international scene he missed out on Euro 2004 because of injury and two years later Scolari left him out of his squad for the Germany World Cup. During two of Portugal’s most successful ever tournaments, where the scintillating football played by the Seleção won admirers all over the planet, Quaresma was watching from his sofa. It seemed cruel testimony that he was destined never to shine on the highest stage.
In 2008, Quaresma again tried his luck abroad, this time at Internazionale. His time at San Siro would provide a synopsis of his career outside his comfort zone until that point. He struggled to adapt to his new environment and a tactically demanding coach, with compatriot José Mourinho reluctant to give licence to his wild and rebellious style of creativity. “He’ll have to learn, otherwise he won’t play, and I am sure he’ll change and become more tactically disciplined. If you ask me about him in a few months’ time, we’ll be talking about a different Quaresma,” Mourinho said shortly after the player’s arrival.
But Mourinho failed to tame the Mustang. He rarely played and in the 2008/09 season he was loaned to Chelsea during the January transfer window. He even suffered the ignominy of being awarded the Bidone d’Oro (Golden Bin) for the worst player in Serie A. The following year Inter won the Champions League. Quaresma made just two substitute appearances in the competition and did not even sit on the bench in the semi-finals and final. There was something awkward, even sad, to see his over-the-top celebration after Inter beat Bayern Munich in the final.
The tide begins to turn
At this point in his career, Quaresma had acquired the epithet of a wasted talent, known as much for his outlandish fashion sense and numerous extravagant tattoos as for his football.
After Inter Milan, Quaresma spent two productive years in Turkey with Besiktas, before again falling out with then-manager Carlos Carvalhal and being released by the club. January 2013 marked his lowest ebb, when he joined Dubai-based Al-Ahli. At 29, many people believed he was finished. They would be proven wrong. After again being released from his contract, Quaresma re-signed for Porto in January 2014. Over 10,000 fans came to see his first training session.
Quaresma soon offered a reminder of better days. During a lean trophy-less spell for Porto, the Portuguese winger was more often than not the team’s best player, providing abundant goals and assists and a much needed outlet of unpredictability in Julen Lopetegui’s rigid tactical system. He even earned plaudits for becoming more of a team player.
He had lost little of his ability to bamboozle defenders and goalkeepers with an outrageous piece of skill, but he was now more intelligent in choosing his moments and was happy to keep it simple when need be. Two goals against Bayern Munich in a Champions League quarter-final tie seemed to confirm Quaresma had become a consistent performer at the elite level.
In fact, the only person who did not seem convinced was Porto coach Lopetegui. The Spaniard often left him out of the starting line-up, hooked him early or even left him in the stands, much to the dismay of his adoring fans at the Estádio do Dragão. Even so, it was a surprise when ahead of the 2015/16 season he returned to Besiktas. “Still to this day I don’t know why Porto got rid of me,” Quaresma would later say about his second departure from the club.
When Fernando Santos was appointed Portugal coach in September 2014 he made a point of saying he would consider calling up all eligible players – even those who had been discarded by his predecessor Paulo Bento – and Quaresma was one of the beneficiaries. Impressive performances during qualifying for Portugal earned him a spot in Fernando Santos’ squad for Euro 2016. Finally he was playing an important role for his country, albeit as an impact substitute rather than as a starter.
Indeed, hopes were high that the Ronaldo-Quaresma dream ticket would finally explode on the back of a 7-0 annihilation of Estonia in the final pre-tournament friendly when the two combined brilliantly and Quaresma was unplayable. In France, in the Round of 16, Portugal faced a confident Croatia side which had just dispatched Spain in their last group stage match. The game became a defensive battle, with neither team committing many bodies forward. In extra time, Renato Sanches made a run through midfield before finding Nani, who in turn found Cristiano Ronaldo with only Danijel Subašić to beat. Ronaldo’s shot from a tight angle produced a save from the Croatia goalkeeper but the ball bounced up and a sprinting Quaresma easily headed it into the open net.
It was enough to overcome Croatia. In the next match against Poland, he converted the decisive spot kick in the penalty shoot-out to send Portugal to the semi-finals, and in the final, fittingly, it was he who replaced Ronaldo in the 25th minute after the Portuguese captain left the field bathed in tears following the early challenge by Dimitri Payet.
He combined well with his teammates throughout the match, attempting a spectacular scissor-kick in the late stages which Hugo lloris had to be alert to, and was on the field when Eder scored the winning goal in extra time to give Portugal the historic victory. Portugal had finally won its first title at senior level and Quaresma had played a major part in it. All the years of disappointment evaporated on that glorious Paris night.
Still going strong
At 33, Quaresma is still playing at a very high level. In Turkey, he has scored once and provided nine assists in 18 domestic matches for Besiktas, but he has saved his best football for Europe, netting three goals and three assists in the Champions League group stage and notching another assist in this week’s Europa League 3-1 win over Hapoel Be’er Sheva. He recently signed an extension with Besiktas which will see him under contract with the club until 2020.
He has continued to make an impact at international level as well. In the recent World Cup qualifier against Latvia, he came on as a second-half substitute and set up goals for William Carvalho and Ronaldo to help lift Portugal to a 4-1 win.
Should he avoid injury and maintain his current form, he will almost certainly be in Russia in 2018. Remarkably, it would be his first World Cup.
Hero-worshiped by Porto and Besiktas fans, six championship titles for four different clubs, a European Championship winner and still in with a shot of lifting the ultimate trophy. A wasted talent?
By Rui Martins & Tom Kundert