Portugal’s Euro 2016 triumph triggered euphoric celebrations among Seleção fans, not only in the mother country, but in the diaspora all around the world. Yet the manner in which Fernando Santos guided his men to victory in France was met with widespread criticism among much of the world’s media.
Failing to understand why none of that criticism was shared in Portugal or by Seleção fans is not to understand the history of the Portuguese national football team. Rui Miguel Martins takes you on a 50-year journey of glorious failure by an attack-minded Seleção.
Where it all began
England 2-1 Portugal, 1966 World Cup
Benfica had done much to raise the profile of the Portuguese game in the early 60s, making the final of the European Cup four times between 1961-1965, winning it twice. Portugal manager Otto Gloria would take several players from those teams to the 1966 World Cup in England, including the entire front line of Eusébio, José Torres, José Augusto and António Simões.
The Portuguese national team’s exciting brand of attacking football would be one of the major stories of the tournament. They managed to win all three matches in a very difficult group which included the two-time defending champions Brazil, plus Hungary and Bulgaria.
The Seleção overcame a 3-0 deficit to beat North Korea 5-3 in the quarter-finals in a classic match. That set up a semi-final encounter with the host nation, England. Perhaps feeling the effects of having to come back against North Korea, the Portuguese lacked the same attacking prowess.
In the 30th minute, England went ahead when Bobby Charlton took advantage of a poor clearance by Portuguese goalkeeper José Pereira. Portugal struggled to react and it looked like game over when Charlton scored his second with 10 minutes to go.
But just three minutes later Jack Charlton (brother of Bobby) took a wild swipe at a Torres’ header in the box to prevent a goal with his hand. It was an obvious penalty, which Eusébio converted, but that would be the closest Portugal would come.
England would go on to beat West Germany 4-2 in the final. Portugal would achieve some redemption in the third-place match, beating the Soviet Union 2-1, and Eusébio cemented his place as a global star of world football as the tournament’s top scorer with nine goals.
The 1966 World Cup left an indelible mark on Portugal and its footballing culture. It would be the model of many subsequent Portuguese teams, which tried to recreate its unique brand of attacking football.
“It was the Portuguese that captivated the World Cup,” José Augusto said in 2014. “It was unforgettable. In a few weeks, we elevated the name of Portuguese football and the country to a level that they have rarely been in history. After the summer of 1966, Portuguese football was never the same again.”
But it was also the first of many heartbreaks.
The French curse begins
France 3-2 Portugal, Euro 1984
Portugal was not able to build on the success of the 1966 team. It would be 18 years before the Seleção would appear at another major tournament. But in their European Championship debut, just like in their World Cup debut, Portugal were a surprise package as they advanced to the semi-finals of Euro 1984. In another throwback to 1966, Portugal would again meet the host nation, this time France.
The match did not start well for the Portuguese. Jean-François Domergue fired in a free-kick just beyond the 18-yard box to open the scoring. And with the fervent Marseille crowd urging the home team on, the French could have easily scored more.
At half-time, Portugal manager Fernando Cabrita brought on striker Fernando Gomes to play alongside Rui Jordão, and the move sparked the Portuguese to life. In the 74th minute, Jordão headed in Fernando Chalana’s cross to tie the match.
In the first-half of extra time, Chalana again found Jordão whose shot bounced into the ground and flew into the top corner. Portugal were on the verge of achieving something extraordinary.
But France, desperate for an equaliser, raised the tempo. In the 114th minute, Platini managed to chip the ball towards Domergue who scored his second of the match. With Portugal holding on for penalties, Jean Tigana sent in a low cross to Platini, who made no mistake.
The game is widely considered one of the most entertaining matches ever played in international football history.
More semi-final misery
Portugal 1-2 France, Euro 2000
Euro 2000 was a turning point for Portugal in many ways. The Golden Generation led by Luís Figo and Rui Costa had finally come of age. And manager Humberto Coelho had a terrific supporting cast to draw from.
The tone was set with an exhilarating comeback victory against England in the opening match, when the team recovered from 2-0 down to win a thriller thanks to Luís Figo, João Pinto and Nuno Gomes goals. Portugal would go on to defeat Romania 1-0 in their next match, and then Germany 3-0 to top their group.
A brace by Gomes in the quarter-finals against Turkey set up another semi-final against France. And the match immediately had echoes of 1984. Thierry Henry and Gomes exchanged goals in the 90 minutes and the game went into extra time to determine who would make the final.
In the final moments of extra time, Sylvain Wiltord’s shot hit the hand of Portuguese defender Abel Xavier and the linesman gave the handball decision for a penalty. Zinedine Zidane duly converted the spot kick and with the Golden Goal rule in effect, the match ended there and then. Portugal’s European dream was over in agonising fashion again.
It was a difficult way to lose. Portugal had put everything on the line against what was the best national team in the world at the time (reigning World Champions) and came away empty-handed again.
But sadly, Portugal’s deepest moment of football anguish was still four years away.
Portugal 0-1 Greece, Euro 2004
After the disaster at the 2002 World Cup, the Portuguese Football Federation hired Brazilian Luiz Felipe Scolari. It was an audacious move. Scolari had won the World Cup with Brazil playing a style that reminded the world of Pelé and Jogo Bonito.
The two chief protagonists of the Golden Generation, Luís Figo and Rui Costa, still had plenty to offer. And they were joined by a very young Cristiano Ronaldo. Portugal were hosting Euro 2004 and much was expected of them.
It felt like a golden opportunity to win a major tournament, but things got off to the worst possible start. Portugal lost 2-1 to Greece in the opening match of the tournament.
But they recovered, beating Russia and Spain to advance to the knockout stages, where England were defeated on penalties in an epic match after a 2-2 draw in the quarter-finals and the Netherlands dispatched 2-1 in the semi-finals.
That led to what appeared the perfect scenario to finally break the trophy famine. Greece had surprised everyone by getting to the final. Manager Otto Rehhagel had committed to playing an airtight defensive system. In the final, Angelos Charisteas’ second-half header gave the Greeks the lead. It would be their only effort on goal. And it would be enough.
Greece withstood the relentless attacks and pulled off the impossible. Portugal’s dream of winning their first title on home soil had turned into a nightmare. Cristiano Ronaldo was left in tears after the final whistle and not for the last time.
Seleção undone by familiar nemesis
France 1-0 Portugal, 2006 World Cup
Scolari stayed on for the World Cup in Germany. Luís Figo had reversed his decision to retire from the national team for one last chance at glory. And the tournament began well, as Portugal finished first in their group by winning their matches against Angola, Iran and Mexico.
A goal by Maniche was enough to get past the Netherlands in the infamously brutal match that became known as the Battle of Nuremberg. Portugal then beat England on penalties for the second tournament running (Ricardo saved three English penalties) to advance to the semi-finals where they would meet France.
And again, the match would have its share of controversy and drama. Ricardo Carvalho was called for a foul after Thierry Henry went down in the box. Replays show that the French striker went down rather easily, but the referee pointed to the penalty spot.
Zidane once again stepped up and gave France the lead. Portugal stepped into high gear the rest of the way but France held on to win and advance to the final. The Seleção would lose the third-place match 3-1 to hosts Germany. They had the slight consolation of being voted the most entertaining team at the tournament via a FIFA internet poll.
But that was the end of the Golden Generation and an incredibly gifted set of players had failed to bring Portugal silverware.
Penalty shootout pain
Portugal 0-0 Spain (Lost 4-2 on penalties), Euro 2012
After disappointing performances at Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup, Portugal had much to prove heading into Euro 2012. Paulo Bento had replaced Carlos Queiroz early on in the qualifying campaign, and the team booked their place in the tournament thanks to a play-off victory against Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Bento was committed to counter-attacking football in a traditional 4-3-3 formation. Portugal were drawn in the group of death with Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands. After a narrow 1-0 defeat to Germany, they pulled off victories in the final two matches of the group stage to advance.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s diving header in the quarter-finals against the Czech Republic gave Portugal a 1-0 victory, to set up a semi-final against the all-conquering Spain who were then at the height of their powers.
The Portuguese would heroically hold Spain to a scoreless draw over 120 minutes before losing 4-2 on penalties. Portugal came the closest to knocking out a Spanish side that could just be the greatest in the history of world football, but it was scant reward as that wait for a first title went on.
We’ll always have Paris
Euro 2016, a new approach and the spell is broken!
Fernando Santos broke with tradition and adopted a more pragmatic approach to winning games. The ‘engineer’ embraced a win at all costs mentality.
“Between playing attractive football and being at home or playing ugly and being here, I prefer to be ugly,” Santos said at a news conference prior to Portugal’s semi-final with Wales.
Santos’ team was accused of using negative tactics to win Euro 2016, but the reality is less clear. They attacked relentlessly in their first two matches against Iceland and Austria. Both teams demonstrated an unwillingness to open up play leaving Portugal frustrated. And they had to come back on three occasions against Hungary to draw 3-3 in perhaps the most exciting match of the tournament.
In the knockout stage, Portugal turned to a more defensive mind-set. With the majority of knockout games decided by one goal or in extra time, this has become the norm in modern football.
Paris was a vindication of sorts. Portugal had come so close, so many times. It seemed unlikely that they would ever win their first title. They had gained many admirers with their attacking brand of football but a title always proved to be just beyond their grasp.
It will be interesting to see what tactics Santos will adopt going forward. Will grabbing that first piece of silverware shatter the psychological barrier and pave the way for the Seleção to marry beautiful football to winning football? Or has Santos hit upon a winning formula that is here to stay? Finding out the answer will make for fascinating viewing in the coming years.
By Rui Miguel Martins