Introducing a 3-part series evaluating Portugal's World Cup hopes
Fans of the Seleção, rejoice! It is a World Cup year. As Portugal looks forward to what promises to be a colossal finals tournament in Russia, PortuGOAL will be steadily ramping up coverage ahead of the big event.
To kick things off, Seleção correspondent Nathan Motz has compiled his own unique assessment of Portugal's tournament credentials in a 3-part series.
Beginning next Tuesday, join Nathan as he looks to the past to get a better idea of which team characteristics are shared by World Cup champions, and how Portugal's own squad measures up. Is there legitimate reason for hope aside from the usual fan euphoria? Or is the hidden reality more bleak?
In May 2006, I knew precisely nothing about football. In this regard, some would suggest not much has changed since then.
It is hard to believe nearly 12 years have passed since Figo, Deco, and a raw but outrageously skillful Cristiano Ronaldo spawned new legions of non-Portuguese supporters during their scintillating run to a 4th place finish in Germany. I was among that group.
There have been two additional World Cups since then, both of which ended in unambiguous disappointment. In hindsight, it is not so difficult to understand why South Africa 2010 and Brazil 2014 went poorly for the Seleção, but perhaps you might remember that these tournaments still generated the conventional feelings of optimism within the global Portuguese supporter community. A quality of hope that understandably lacked some conviction after the Golden Generation had long since faded, and counterbalanced to an extent by a subculture of negativity, but there was still a surge in belief that Portugal might be able to contrive some unexpected miracle and win.
I have been wondering of late whether the build-up to Russia 2018 is yet another episode of false and irrational confidence that maybe this time things will be different. Regardless, an emotional wave is noticeably building. There is real conviction regarding this group of players the likes of which I have not seen before in my relatively short time as a fan.
But one might suggest these hopeful sentiments are merely the expected by-products of Portugal’s emotional Euro 2016 victory, and as such carry no real merit. Euro 2012 arguably had similar effects ahead of the 2014 World Cup. Such was the rationale, “If Portugal only just fell short in Ukraine, why could they not do one better next time?”
Obviously, some other crucial indicators of Portugal’s potential in Brazil were not considered carefully enough.
Interestingly, even as Portugal fans are beginning to come into agreement that this crop of talent is in fact another Golden Generation, there still remains hesitancy to bestow upon them such a prestigious title. Remember the only previous group to be adorned with such a laurel ultimately fell short in the tournaments of the early 2000s.
In football, there are no safe bets. Unlike other sports such as basketball, American football, or baseball, the odds of victory in any particular match, even between a sure favorite and a heavy underdog, are just slightly above 50% in favor of the superior team on paper. This remains true in spite of the fact that just eight nations have ever won the World Cup, and five of those have won it more than once. Only four additional countries have ever even finished runners-up.
Meanwhile the rest of the world seems oblivious to the fact Portugal are European Champions. So unconvincing was the body of work put forth last summer that some betting outlets have appraised Portugal’s odds of victory in Russia lower than England’s, a side defeated at Euro 2016 by tournament debutante Iceland in the first stage of the knockout rounds. Many of Portugal’s standout players have remained basically anonymous outside Portuguese football fandom. For example, Rui Patricio had a wonderful tournament by all accounts, even making the Ballon d’Or shortlist in 2016, but he remains at Sporting, arguably playing in a league his performances have outgrown.
That said, here is the real question…
Are Portugal fans justified to dream the forbidden dream, or is it more rational to adopt the skeptical consensus of world opinion?
In this series, I will almost certainly evaluate some of Portugal’s key players and their individual and collective fortune at the World Cup in a way that upsets many fans, but I hope you will not be so easily deterred by unpleasant feelings. I hope you will be drawn in by the unsparing honesty with which I attempt to lay bare our efforts to win this tournament, especially as it pertains to the quality of our players in key positions and how Portugal compare to past World Cup winners and the current dynamos of world football alike.
As a test of your willingness to press through emotional slights to find the elusive bedrock of truth, try this on for size: I am greatly concerned whenever I see fans dismiss the reality that some of our best players are struggling or even failing at their domestic clubs by saying “they will be well rested for the World Cup.” This statement, despite characterizing their situation in an emotionally palatable manner, lacks intellectual currency.
Would German fans speak this way whenever their first-choice players were benched or putting in subpar displays at club level? Hard to say, they almost never have the opportunity since their starting players are always first choice at club level.
If you feel the object of such lecturing, fear not, I am no less susceptible to romanticized but unproven thought. For quite some time I have spoken about Russia 2018 being Portugal’s “best opportunity to win a World Cup in my lifetime” without fully appreciating or understanding all of the implications of such a pronouncement.
If you are still willing to participate, these are exactly the sort of claims I would like to openly discuss. No more false hope, no more supporter bias. Only honest reflection, historical and contemporary validation, and a willingness to prepare ourselves in a justifiable way for whatever happens at the big show this summer.
Less than six months separate Portugal from their titanic Group B opener against Spain in Sochi. Are we ready? Pull up a seat and let us talk real football. Part one in the series comes out on Tuesday, 9 January!
by Nathan Motz