Ten hot takes on Portugal’s European Championship performance and Germany in 2024

It was fun while it lasted. Portugal are out of Euro 2024 after losing to France on penalties in the quarter-final.

The inquest is in full swing. The need to find a scapegoat, click-worthy headlines and bombastic conclusions is more evident with each passing day in our social-media driven world.

Having had over 48 hours to digest the defeat, Tom Kundert gives his views on Portugal’s participation at the tournament, the experience of following the Seleção as much as a fan as a journalist and impressions on the host country after three weeks travelling the length and breadth of Germany. 

 

1. Portugal played a good Euro 2024 and Martínez deserves to stay

Winning major tournaments is incredibly difficult. The Seleção have won one more recently than powerhouses like Germany and Spain. England’s wait for glory is over half a century and counting.

Portugal did not impress in the group stage or the last-16 match but did what they had to do to get to the last eight and saved their best performance for their final match. 

The Seleção played better against France in Hamburg than they did in the Euro 2016 final in Paris. There was an even distribution of chances and Portugal showed a level of control for substantial parts of the 120 minutes. 

If Bruno Fernandes, Vitinha, Ronaldo or Nuno Mendes had taken their chances, or if Rafael Leão had not been brilliantly tackled by Eduardo Camavinga as he was about to pull the trigger, and the Seleção had won 1-0, the French could have no complaints about the justice of the scoreline. 

And the narrative would have been completely different. Headlines like “Martínez masterclass”, “Portugal confirm tournament credentials”, “Redemption for Ronaldo” would have been emblazoned across the media. Instead, especially in Portugal, the inquest was damning, instantaneous and outright wild, in keeping with today's unquenchable lust for blood and thunder conclusions. Notions in the immediate aftermath of the defeat such as sacking Roberto Martínez on the spot, a complete clear-out of the FPF and Ronaldo single-handedly ruining the chances of success of the Seleção frenziedly did the rounds

At the end of the day, Martínez oversaw a record-breaking qualifying campaign and only fell in the tournament by the finest of margins against probably the best international team in the world. The tactics against France were excellent, the substitutions good, with the possible exception of João Félix over Diogo Jota, and failing to hook Ronaldo, but it’s easy to say that in hindsight. 

That is not to say the coach is beyond reproach. The bizarre experimental lineup chosen against Czechia that almost resulted in disaster and his mismanagement of Ronaldo were obvious mistakes. It is fine to call him out on those and other issues and demand that he learns from his missteps. 

But throwing Martínez out and starting afresh would be a knee-jerk reaction to perhaps unrealistic expectations. Yes, Portugal have a wonderfully talented and deep squad, but so do most of the other top nations. Failing to win Euro 2024 and being knocked out by the favourites cannot be deemed a failure, however frustrating it was. Winning major tournaments is incredibly difficult. 

 

2. Portugal did not lose Euro 2024 because of Ronaldo

On the back of another 50-goal season, albeit in Saudi Arabia, and a return to form in international football (only Lukaku scored more goals in Euro 2024 qualifying), Ronaldo started as Portugal’s striker at the tournament on merit and looked sharp in the first couple of games. 

He got progressively less effective in line with his desperation to get on the scoresheet. The muscle memory as the greatest goalscorer the game has ever seen was evident in flashes, as in the brilliant rapid backwards/forwards movement to flummox the otherwise flawless Dayot Upamecano and gain a couple of metres of space close to goal in extra time against France. Unfortunately, Ronaldo's lethal finishing ability is no longer what it was, his body and foot coordination unable to instantly produce the lithe twist and sound connection to send the ball into the other side of the net to where Mike Maignan was stationed.

It is fair to say that Martínez and Ronaldo himself did not maximize Portugal’s chances of success by the way the captain was utilized. The needless appearance against Georgia and his non-substitution against France are difficult to justify.

Whether or not Portugal would have beaten France had Diogo Jota or Gonçalo Ramos replaced the captain we will never know. To take that as an automatic is to ignore the fact Portugal's biggest problem as regards the paucity of goals in this tournament was their inability to create chances, explained largely by Bruno Fernandes’ lack of inspiration, Rafael Leão’s disastrous end-product and the appalling crossing in general by the Seleção all tournament. And one need only look at the struggle to find the net of other superstars like Kylian Mbappé and Harry Kane, and the plethora of low-scoring matches to highlight the difficulty in breaking through well-organised back lines. 

I remain unconvinced that Jota or Ramos would have found the route to goal any easier than Ronaldo did and blaming Portugal’s demise solely on the captain is too facile. 

 

3. Plenty of positives

Several Seleção players distinguished themselves in Germany and cemented their status as Portugal starters for years to come.

Foremost among them is Vitinha, who showed why Luis Enrique considered him PSG’s player of the season by upstaging Bruno Fernandes and Bernardo Silva. It is practically impossible to take the ball off Vitinha. The image of the diminutive Portuguese spinning and retaining possession even when sandwiched between two of France’s towering midfielders sticks in the memory. This season he added goals and assists in his club football. If he can do the same at international level, he will be the complete package.

Another outstanding performer, also from PSG, was Nuno Mendes. Plagued by injury problems over the past two seasons, Mendes got better and better match by match, reclaiming his status as one of the best left-backs in the world.

Rúben Dias had his best tournament for Portugal, the Manchester City centre-back a calm, commanding and error-free presence alongside the indefatigable Pepe, while Diogo Costa and Francisco Conceição also had standout moments. I would consider these the five players who most enhanced their reputation at Euro 2024.  

 

4. The Ronaldo idolisation – a societal phenomenon

My colleague Matthew Marshall had told me about the astonishing levels of veneration exhibited towards Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi at Qatar 2022. To see it first-hand is quite something.

Portugal’s support in Germany was boosted by countless fans who made the trip from Asia, notably India and Japan, to see the Portugal captain in action. While Ronaldo’s popularity in that part of the world is well documented, perhaps more surprising was to witness the number of German fans who were rooting for him.

Jakob brought a spare ticket we had for the Georgia match for his younger brother, Oskar, saying: “I cannot tell you how happy this will make my brother. He is the biggest Ronaldo fan and it’s unbelievable we get to see him in our home town. He will be so happy.” Jakob and his brother are both bright young Germans, finishing their degrees.

We met Gabri in the fan zone ahead of the Slovenia game. Born near Frankfurt, a daughter of Pakistani parents, she said she had come to see if she could get a glimpse of Ronaldo. “He’s such a good role model – the way he came from poverty and he always looks after his family.” Truth be told, most of the many random German fans we met said Ronaldo was tremendously popular among their peer group and they hoped he would do well.

Sports journalists often sneer at the level of idolisation, saying it has no place in football, and often conflating the phenomenon with Portugal’s lack of success. I do not believe the two things are related. The other Seleção players have talked for years about the intense focus around Ronaldo actually making their life easier given that they consequently avoid criticism or are not subject to such exacting scrutiny. (On a side note, the level of vitriol directed towards Ronaldo makes me wonder if certain members of the media are outraged not so much by his character traits, but by the fact he is adored by so many).

While the root causes for the hero worship are difficult to fathom and are more sociological than sports related, I have no problem with it. Football can be consumed in many ways. Whatever rocks your boat, as they say! And truth be told, it is hard not to feel a sense of pride that the most famous person on planet earth comes from a little old country called Portugal. 

 

5. The Portugal fan walks to the stadium were a sight to behold

I covered this tournament differently to previous ones. I spent the majority of time amongst the Seleção followers and mingling with other football fans between games. It was a hugely enjoyable experience. 

A big highlight was the fan walks to the matches, as thousands of Portugal fans made the final trip to the stadium in unison and in good voice. In Leipzig, in Dortmund, in Gelsenkirchen, in Frankfurt and in Hamburg the festive nature and excitement of the occasion was contagious. The party atmosphere was significantly increased by the reaction of the local population, some joining the parade, many lining bridges and waving from their balconies as they observed the boisterous red and green-clad throng slowly advancing. Some of the window wavers had a Portugal flag or shirt to hand, the occasional “Siiiiuuuu!” celebration busted out by young and old alike to much hilarity. 

The sense of fun and joy and somewhat wacky nature of these walks is exemplified by one of the Portugal chants that gained traction as the tournament went on: 

“A mãe da minha mãe é minha avó, 

A mãe da minha mãe é minha avó, 

A mãe da minha mãe, 

A mãe da minha mãe, 

A mãe da minha mãe é minha avó!" 

sung to the tune of “She’ll be coming round the mountain”. I invite you to Google translate the meaning of the chant to attest to its flawless logic. Please don't ask me to explain its reason for being! 

 

6. Friendly, helpful and a great sense of humour: Germans prove the perfect hosts

If the German population had collectively decided to use Euro 2024 to shatter some less than complimentary stereotypes, it was mission accomplished, at least for me.

Friendly and chatty, we struck up endless conversations, mostly about football and train timetables, but also touching on other more sensitive issues (see below). The vast majority of the Germans we encountered were polite, open, genuinely curious about us, our country and what we thought of Germany. Of course it does help that you have the instant ice-breaker by wearing a Portugal shirt and no doubt the country as a whole was keen to give a good reflection of themselves. Perhaps it would be different visiting at a different time in different circumstances. But the quantity of good-natured conversations and rapport struck up could not have left a more positive impression. 

And as for that old troupe about a lack of sense of humour, forget it. I spent a good portion of these three weeks laughing out loud, and not all induced by the beer consumption. When our train trip from Frankfurt to Hamburg finally got underway, a middle-aged German lady found herself surrounded by seven Portuguese occupying two table seats.

A speaker announcement was made in German and our fellow passenger commented, “Oh, good news, they are going to give us all one beer each for the train being delayed.” “Really!?” we replied. “No! I was only joking. They give us a water!” followed by a howl of infectious cackling laughter. It was the perfect start to an animated journey. 

 

7. Dark past still very present 

One thing that struck me as I watched Germany kicking off the tournament against Scotland in a packed Biergarten in Berlin was the lack of fervour or overt emotion during the German national anthem.

I commented on this to a few Germans who all gave a similar response, saying that given the country’s past, namely World War II and the Holocaust, most Germans did not feel comfortable showing any kind of nationalistic tendencies. When I suggested that people who were born in the last few decades had nothing to do with that the response was: “Yes, but we know our past. We are taught about it for years at school and that is important so it never happens again.” Moving memorials to victims of the Holocaust are commonplace. 

We went on a guided walking tour of every city we visited in Germany, which is a great way to get a snapshot of the local history. Almost a century on from the Second World War, it was genuinely shocking seeing “before and after” photos of entire cities reduced to rubble. Several churches were not bombed on purpose in order to aid air navigation for the next wave of bombing by the allies, resulting in incredibly hard-hitting images of a lone church left standing in a wasteland of destruction. And the scene was repeated, city after city... 

 

8. A country of immigrants 

Germany has a huge migrant population. Whenever we needed to grab something to eat late at night, it would invariably be at a Halal restaurant or some Turkish, Syrian or Balkan eatery, and we would be served by a Serb, an Iranian, an Afghan, a Turk or somebody whose roots were far from Germany. 

There’s no way to sugarcoat the gamut of opinions we heard about the issue. Some Germans were up front in saying it had gone too far and was harming the country. One bar we frequented outright refused to allow “non-Germans” to enter. Others said the immigrants were needed, they were for the most part hard-working and made Germany a stronger country. Others were somewhere in between. Among the immigrant community themselves, there was also a range of opinions about how they felt about their adopted country: “I love Germany and Hamburg. It’s good in everything apart from  the weather!” said Ahmed from Syria, while I cannot repeat the opinion offered by a Turk where I bought my kebab last night. 

The day we left Gelsenkirchen for Frankfurt we had to walk the final couple of kilometres of our bus route. Roads had been blocked off for a conference held by the far-right AfD political party and a huge demonstration against it was concurrently taking place. A bus passenger informed us 80,000 people were expected to come into town.

I don’t purport to be any sort of expert from a short stay with plenty of distraction, but from my interactions, there does appear to be an underlying tension on this subject matter, as in other countries throughout Western Europe. That said, most of the people with whom we broached the subject did not see immigration in itself as an overly concerning issue, and were more worried about the nefarious effects of opportunists looking to use it as leverage for political gain. 

 

9. Miscellaneous observations in comparison to Portugal (this section may say as much about Portugal as about Germany)

  • Amazing public transport and what do you know, non-chaotic traffic. Could the two be related, I wonder? I hardly heard a car horn. The Berlin Hauptbahnhof – the central train station – is astonishing. Layer upon layer of train and metro tracks snaking out in all directions. 
  • Very strong police presence. Don’t know if it was because of the Euro or if it is normal.
  • So many tattooed people, with body and especially facial piercings also extremely commonplace, often sported by individuals from an older age group than I’d expect.
  • I was surprised by the number of homeless people living rough. 
  • The church spires are ridiculously tall in most cities. Is it a national competition? 

 

10. Food for thought

I was warned beforehand about how terrible German food is but I was pleasantly surprised. As mentioned earlier, we often ate late at the kind of fast-food joint you can find in any big city in the world, but we made an effort to try out German cuisine when the opportunity arose.

The Schweinshaxe (roast knuckle of pork) was magnificent, I particularly liked the traditional Green Sauce in Frankfurt made from seven different herbs with yoghurt and sour cream, and the currywurst (curry sausage) was a reliable staple when looking for a quick snack. I also became partial to the desserts that invariably contained some concoction of apple and/or fruits of the forest.

Danke Schön Deutschland!

By Tom Kundert, at Frankfurt airport

 

Related: Portugal vs France - Player Ratings

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