The European Champions booked their place at the 2018 World Cup with an authoritative display on Tuesday night in Lisbon, raising hopes that the Seleção could achieve something extraordinary in Russia next summer.
“It’s legitimate to think about winning the World Cup,” said midfielder João Mário after the victory against Switzerland. “We may not be favourites, but we are contenders for sure.” Despite giving a display of midfield intelligence, energy and poise, Mário had been upstaged by two other members of Portugal’s exciting young generation, William Carvalho and Bernardo Silva.
Juxtapose the vibrancy and talent of such players against the big-game knowhow of veterans Pepe and João Moutinho (both of whom were flawless against the Swiss) and the continuing x-factor that is captain Cristiano Ronaldo, and you have an explanation for the recent success of the national team. It is this harmonious combination of youth and experience that has a nation dreaming of the ultimate prize.
Ever since Fernando Santos was appointed Portugal coach in September 2014, his open-ended and fair-minded selection policy has brought spectacular benefits to the Seleção.
“Every player who is eligible to play for Portugal has a chance of selection - it makes no difference how old or young he is,” he said in his unveiling press conference. Santos was as good as his word. The Euro 2016 squad included the youngest ever player to represent Portugal at a major tournament, Renato Sanches, and the oldest, Ricardo Carvalho. The rest, as they say, is history.
Portugal would not have won their first ever major tournament without the crucial contributions of old hands Nani, Ricardo Quaresma, Pepe and José Fonte, all the wrong side of thirty, just like they would not have lifted the trophy that memorable Paris night without the efforts of young tyros Raphael Guerreiro, Mário or Sanches, aged 22, 23 and 18 respectively at the time.
For many of the old guard, next year’s World Cup will almost certainly be their last. Given his unmatched hunger for football achievement, it is not fanciful to suggest Ronaldo could still be part of the national team make-up in 2022, at 37 years of age, but if he is to bring his extraordinary prowess to bear by pushing Portugal to glory at the planet’s greatest sporting event, it has to be at next summer’s World Cup.
For Pepe and Moutinho, two outstanding servants for the Seleção over the past decade, and Quaresma, Fonte, Bruno Alves and Nani (if selected), this is very definitely their last World Cup. Portugal under Santos has become a perfect symbiosis, the older players mentoring their soon-to-be successors and the younger players offering a fresh impetus, extravagant talent and boundless energy to cover for their ageing colleagues when need be.
Not that Portuguese football fans are excessively worried about the future beyond Russia. The heralded emergence of a second Geração de Ouro, especially in midfield, has come to fruition with the impressive depth of talent now kicking into full footballing maturity. Bernardo Silva is the flagbearer of a generation that has every chance of following in the footsteps of first group of players to earn that moniker at the turn of the millennium, led by Luís Figo, Rui Costa and Paulo Sousa.
One need only look at the clubs many of the new generation play for to understand that Portugal continues to overperform in terms of producing prodigious talents, with Seleção players scattered around Europe’s top teams from Italy (André Silva and João Mário at the Milan clubs), Germany (Guerreiro at Dortmund), Spain (Nelson Semedo at Barcelona) and England (Bernardo at Manchester City).
What is so exciting for Portugal is not only that these players are representing clubs who have genuine aspirations of going deep and winning the Champions League in the coming seasons, but that they are more than bit-part players. They are young, but they ready for the here and now. And for Portugal the here and now is the Russia World Cup.
Amid the festivities in the Portuguese capital on Tuesday night, coach Fernando Santos, ever the pragmatist, was already thinking ahead. “My focus now is November, and the friendly matches. This is an ongoing job of assessment to choose the final 23 players. We’ll try and form as strong a squad as possible for the tournament.”
Boasting a record of 16 victories in 17 qualifying matches and a European Championship triumph since taking over, nobody questions Santos’ ability to again hit upon a squad that will maximise Portugal’s chances of pulling off what only two other nations have ever managed: a World Cup win on the back of a European Championship victory (Germany 1974 and Spain 2010).
Euro 2016 was an unforgettable tournament for Portugal. But it may have been just the appetizer.
by Tom Kundert