Familiarity and mystery as Portugal’s Euro 2024 adventure looms on the horizon

Every build-up to a major tournament has its own unique emotional swells. From the rigors of qualification to the group stage draw to the fate of players at club level, there’s a distinct flavor or complexion to the ordeal.

Many Portugal supporters might rather forget the process and the not insignificant degree of cardiovascular and mental health abnormalities they induce. World Cup 2010 qualification anyone? Or World Cup 2014 when Ronaldo was injured and you could see disaster coming in slow motion?

While other nations flattened their opponents, Portugal’s qualification dumpster fire normally concluded with an assignment to the Group of Death. Ah these were simpler times, weren’t they? 

Even Euro 2016 qualifying was more toilsome than Portugal’s eventual 7-0-1 record might suggest, costing Paulo Bento his job. It is our lineage, a unifying element of Portugal’s football culture, this unsavory drama.

But this iteration has proven anomalous on multiple accounts. A record-setting qualification performance and drawn into a challenging but manageable group stage – seems nearly unthinkable compared to what supporters have experienced for much of the last decade and a half. Those of us, including yours truly, who bitterly complained during the heart-attack Seleção era may be left to wonder if the team did not actually benefit from the perils of qualification. We will now find out how significant a leap in competitive quality must be negotiated in the tournament finals. 

But we are still Portugal, aren’t we? Strikers injured and largely out of form. And Cristiano Ronaldo on borrowed time yet surely poised to lead the line at his 6th Euros.

And so it is that Portugal must rally around its iconic elder statesman and more than one tactically discordant, recurrently injured players. And whatever sentimental warmth Ronaldo’s part might kindle, it cannot be ignored this scenario may become a huge problem in the knockout rounds when injuries and suspensions limit player options even further.

Apprehension regarding Portugal’s forward ensemble, a phenomenon more Portuguese than bacalhau, dampens the passion of the moment. One might do no better to understand the concept of saudade than to study the football history of Portugal’s attacking endowments, or lack thereof. It is another stirring reminder that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Opportunity cries loud in the streets. Will any of our strikers take heed?

Pedro Neto, Wolverhampton’s mercurial wing sensation from a bygone era, is surely one who may inherit more responsibility even if only as a substitute.

Yet the conversation surrounding him, too, is familiar even if details are not quite the same. A young Portuguese ace poised for superstardom. A phenomenon who at the penultimate moment, whether by choice or by chance, misfires spectacularly. Neto is presently on the rise again, but will physical limitations sideline him?

But goodness me, Neto can ball. And in the ancestral Portuguese style as a mustang tearing down the flank full tilt, bullying defenders with skill and strength in equal measure. In only 105 matches at Wolverhampton since 2019, Neto’s game has ripened on the vine and is refreshingly straightforward.

Whereas his predecessors never wanted for theatrical interpretation, Neto’s panache is of a different quality and substance. If Bernardo Silva is Portugal’s sorcerer, and Ronaldo its wise king, Neto is its equestrian knight. His scintillating runs charming especially those among us whose age permits the savoring of a nostalgic aroma - that being of a young Cristiano or Quaresma minus the bag of tricks. Neto gallops with effortless conviction as if to notify would-be defenders “I’m going to run right past you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

But as is the case with every other talented player on the roster, success at club level amplifies expectations for the national team. And Neto, effervescent potential notwithstanding, will not like his chances at making Roberto Martinez’s starting XI owing to tactical incompatibility with his preferred 3-4-3 variant.

For the sake of time and space I might just add “ditto” for Rafael Leão, who cannot decide whether to bang in goals of exquisite quality, as he did yesterday, or invite withering criticism for his own positional indiscipline and lack of pitch awareness. Whether João Félix or Diogo Jota or Gonçalo Ramos can reconcile their own injuries and inconsistencies is a profound mystery of near-comical proportions at this stage. 

Talent alone does not decide major tournaments. Talent gets injured. Talent gets suspended. Talent gets sent off. Talent underperforms in crucial situations. Even the talented miss penalties and give away free kicks in dangerous positions.  

Tactics alone do not decide major tournaments. Life teaches any who would listen that careful planning sometimes fails spectacularly. Football merely reflects this constant of the universe. Organization, discipline, and systems are susceptible to unique threats, there is no perfect way to play football. 

The question living rent free in our minds is “just how good are this Portugal?” Five warm up matches will give us some idea although the toughest opponent, Croatia, has aged well beyond its peak. But as I recall, Martinez’s tactics were only ever tested by Slovakia, and there has been ample suggestion a more competent opponent would have dealt more rudely with Portugal.

When times are good be thankful, and when they are not consider God has made the one as well as the other. Nobody knows the future. Of all the important qualities a championship winning squad must have, it is character first. But character is revealed through perseverance and that entails suffering.

This squad hasn’t suffered yet, and we have no idea how well they’d tolerate it. But if Bruno Fernandes’ reaction to trivial adversity is any indicator….not well.

And it is not only him I feel. These players, lavishly gifted and celebrated, strike me as lacking true grit. Resilience solidifies with age perhaps – even Pepe and Ronaldo accrued psychological toughness through experience – but who honestly observes Bruno, Diogo Jota, Rafael Leão, João Félix, or even Ruben Dias and marvels at their emotional resilience? More likely the reverse, I suspect. Harsh perhaps, but sobering moments of genuine inquiry often reveal unpleasant truths. Portugal lack toughness.

“We will be very tough to beat” said Fernando Santos, and indeed his Portugal were in 2016. And whatever you might say about modern football or Martinez’s commitment to summoning the best from the wonderfully gifted generation of players at his disposal, it is strange how little confidence this squad inspires. Stomping Luxembourg by a combined score of 15-0 over two encounters is historic, and results like these generate abstract and disproportionate expectations which are simply irrelevant once the real tournament begins.

But that’s the bad news, and in every tournament cycle there is always good news and bad news. When the Seleção left for Ukraine in 2012 with Helder Postiga its starting No.9, cynicism and ultimately indifference was the norm. Perspective, of course, changes most things. Portugal proved itself one of the best teams at that tournament and the unheralded Postiga still occupies number six all-time in goalscoring behind some rather illustrious personalities indeed.

So we talk about Ronaldo’s age, Leão’s attitude, Neto’s injuries and Bruno’s flailing against heavyweights and you might think “well that’s it then.” It is written and done with. Yet no one knows what this tournament will be like. Injuries and luck play as big a part as skill and tactics. It is so for all participating teams, not just Portugal. But this too, we recite because, well, it has been said before and seems like a good way to cope with the anxiety of the moment. And the unknowns persist. Nothing is a foregone conclusion.

All this colloquialism and repetition obfuscates the goodness in uncertainty, how exhilaration builds as a mystery unravels in its own timing. Sport, and I think football especially, draws out mystical paradoxes of the universe. Things happening that should not happen and vice versa. Players either proving themselves the fraud we always knew they were or resurrecting into an eternal hero. This drama can never be foretold by analyzing club performance or raw metrics or betting trends or any other methodological foil. It isn’t so much art or poetry, it’s something else entirely. And it’s moving. We would do something else with our time if it weren’t.  

How good is Portugal? I don’t know. Neither do you. And let us enjoy the revelation as it unfolds over the next four months. Let’s celebrate we get to watch Ronaldo again. Let’s complain about Bruno’s complaining. Let’s marvel at how much talent this nation produces, and lament they do not know how to suffer together. Let’s be unhappy about our forward situation, then let it go. We have moved on from Santos. Nuno Mendes is back in action. Pepe, Portugal’s gladiator, is still somehow with us. That’s good enough for now. The fulfillment of all the rest in due time. 

Força Seleção!

                                                                                                                                                                                                                          by Nathan Motz