The summer of 2016 will be fondly remembered for all eternity by Portuguese football fans as the Seleção finally lifted their first trophy, in France.
With a healthy smattering of young players playing key roles in the triumph, hopes were high that the conquest would usher in a golden era for the national team. That has not changed, and the introduction of fresh blood into the Seleção, such as Porto striker André Silva and Sporting winger Gelson Martins, has arguably made Fernando Santos’s squad even stronger.
However, as the 2016/17 campaign heads into the home straight, a worrying number of Portugal’s Euro 2016 heroes have had seasons to forget, raising doubts as to what kind of shape the Seleção will be in at next year’s World Cup.
Renato Sanches followed up a fabulous debut season for Benfica and a huge-money move to Bayern Munich with a string of impressive performances in France, earning him the vote as the best young player at Euro 2016. However, instead of kicking on, Sanches has struggled to make any sort of impact at the German giants, and will be disappointed to have accumulated just 800 minutes in all competitions in Bavaria, with zero assists and zero goals to his name. Still a teenager, Sanches has time on his side, but as many foresaw a year ago, the move to one of the world’s biggest teams packed with world-class midfielders appears to have been premature and injudicious for his development.
Another young Portugal midfielder who completed a high-profile transfer for a huge fee was André Gomes, who moved from Valencia to Barcelona for €35 million with a potential further €20m in add-ons. Used predominantly in a more withdrawn role by coach Luis Enrique, Gomes has had a torrid time at his new club, being targeted by Barça fans for booing after a string of less than convincing displays, both by himself and the team. Enrique has strongly defended the player, but with the coach leaving the Camp Nou at the end of the season, the former Benfica midfielder’s future in Catalonia is racked with uncertainty.
João Mário played all seven games at Euro 2016, which on top of a superb season for Sporting earned him a €40 million move to Italian giants Inter Milan in August. The 24-year-old impressed in the first half of the season, and a return of 3 goals and 4 assists in 28 games to date for the Serie A club shows his time at the San Siro has been far from a failure. However, in recent weeks Mário has been disappointingly relegated to the substitutes’ bench, playing only 55 minutes of football for his club side since February.
Eder’s name will forever be associated with Portugal’s greatest triumph, but the Guinea-Bissau born striker’s wonderful winner in the European Championship final has not triggered a particularly happy season at his French club Lille. Eder has managed just 6 goals in 31 matches, and has had to endure some rough treatment from opposing fans as he travels around France. After the striker was booed by PSG fans at the Parc des Princes in December, the then Lille coach Patrick Collot said: “Eder didn’t make France lose. He made Portugal win. He won the European Championship for his country and we should respect that.”
A pronounced dip in form has attracted criticism for centre-back José Fonte and winger Rafa Silva. The former Southampton centre-back has failed to reproduce his best football since moving to West Ham, while Rafa has done little to justify the €16m transfer fee from Braga to Benfica (a record for a domestic transfer in Portugal). Rafa remains a speedy and tricky opponent for defenders, but his decision making at crunch times has left a lot to be desired. Two goals and three assists in 29 matches in 2016/17 reflect his poor end product.
While failure to hit their best form and/or lack of opportunities account for the underwhelming seasons of the above-mentioned players, it is injuries that have severely hampered the seasons of Pepe (after missing several games with niggling injuries the Real Madrid centre-back’s campaign is now over after breaking two ribs against Atletico at the weekend) and Adrien Silva (the Sporting captain made his second comeback of the season after another considerable layoff on Saturday) and fitness issues have also dictated a stop-start season for Nani after his move from Turkish team Fenerbahce to La Liga outfit Valencia.
One of the key factors behind Portugal finally breaking their trophy duck at Euro 2016 was the happy coincidence that practically every one of the squad members went into the tournament on the back of a highly positive season at individual level. Their bubbling confidence was put at the service of the collective good, enabling Santos to build a formidable team, despite several changes in personnel during the month. To attain more success at the Russia World Cup, the Portugal manager will be hopeful of a far more productive campaign for many of his key players in 2017/2018.
by Tom Kundert