Coach Paulo Bento
One to Watch Fabio Coentrao
With less than a week to go until kick-off all of our minds, well most of them at least, will turn away from the domestic football competitions within our own countries, towards the International arena for the eagerly awaited European Championship Finals, to be held in Poland and the Ukraine. At It’s All In The Game, I shall be profiling each of the 16 finalists who will bid to become the champions of Europe until 2016.
We visit Portugal for the next in our series of Euro 2012 team profiles. Portugal played their first competitive match as a national football team in 1921. A game which they lost 3-1 to their neighbours and rivals Spain. The Portuguese had their first taste of competitive international tournament play at the 1928 Olympics, then the foremost international tournament in football, reaching the quarter finals before losing to Egypt.
Since then, Portugal have had mixed fortunes on the international stage, qualifying for five World Cup Finals, their third place finish in 1966, the best position that they’ve achieved to date. In terms of European competition, the Portuguese have done slightly better, reaching the European Championships five times, their defeat to Greece in the final of Euro 2004 on home soil, the closest that Portugal have come to winning major honours.
The World Cup of 1966 saw Portugal produce their best ever finish in the competition. The team which included, Golden Boot winner, Eusebio defeated Hungary, Bulgaria, Brazil and North Korea before being beaten by eventual winners England in the semi-final. They went on to defeat the Soviet Union in the third place play-off, and Eusebio finished the tournament, in England, as top scorer with nine goals.
Portugal didn’t qualify for a major tournament again until the European Championships in 1984. There they went on a run to the semi- finals, narrowly losing out in extra time to, hosts and eventual champions, France, 3-2 in a thrilling encounter.
Domergue, France’s stand-in left back, put his team ahead in the first-half with a majestic free-kick. That’s how it stayed until late in the second-half when Jordao equalised for Portugal, with a perfectly placed looping header. Jordao’s volley gave Portugal the lead in extra time but Domergue equalised from close range for the French before Tigana’s forceful run and cross from the right allowed Platini, in the last minute of extra-time, to control the ball and smash home from six yards out, smashing Portuguese hearts to dust in the process. A first round exit at Mexico 86 followed.
It would be ten years before the Portuguese would reach another major tournament. Euro 96, back in England, would see the coming of age of Portugal’s “Golden Generation”. The group of players, which included Vitor Baia, Rui Costa, Fernando Couto and Figo, who’d won the U-20 World Cups of 1989 and 91, had progressed into the senior ranks and were now delivering relative success at full international level.
Qualification was followed by a run to the knock-out stages, where they were defeated 1-0 by tournament runners-up the Czech Republic, Poborsky doing the damage with an exquisite lob, leaving Baia stranded. Euro 96 however, was followed by a controversial failure to qualify for France 98.
Portugal qualified for Euro 2000 as the best runners up. Once there, they went on a blistering run to the semi-finals, where having been 1-0 up, they lost to a Golden Goal penalty scored by Zenedine Zidane. In scenes reminiscent of the above mentioned Euro 84 final, Portugal conceded the penalty in the last minute of extra time.
Thr reaction of the Portuguese players perhaps sums up the changes in the nature/importance of football that had taken place between the two semi-finals. Portugal’s fury at the award of the penalty to France resulted in chaos. The referee was csurrounded and chased round the pitch as scuffles broke out between players. The scenes, which saw Xavier, Nuno Gomes and current coach Paulo Bento, receive lengthy suspensions, were an embarrassment to the sport the World over.
After a poor showing at World Cup 2002, Luis Felipe Scolari took over management of the Portuguese. Having just won the World Cup with Brazil, Scolari took Portugal into Euro 2004, where, as the host nation, they were expected to do very well. They lost their opening match 2-1 against underdogs Greece, however they re-grouped and went all the way to the final, defeating England and Holland on their way.
There they would again face Greece, and again they would lose, this time 1-0. The result was a huge upset and a massive disappointment for Portugal, who had been convinced that victory over the minnows from the Aegean would be, more or less, a formality. Greece, however, proved yet again, that in football, nothing is ever a forgone conclusion Scolari went on to take Portugal to the World Cup semi-final two years later, but he would leave after being knocked out in the last eight of Euro 2008.
Following defeat in the last sixteen of World Cup 2010, and a doping scandal, Carlos Queiroz was replaced as coach by Paulo Bento. Bento, a member of the “Golden Generation”, managed to secure Portugal’s qualification for Euro 2012 via a 6-2 play-off win over Bosnia.
Under his tutelage, Portugal have only lost once competitively, against group winners Denmark, and look an altogether different proposition. The players look happier and more unified, the trademark flair and attacking style of play is back, and the results in qualifying and the play-off bear this out.
Portugal have a number of exciting, world class players such as Ronaldo and Nani. Nani has had a decent season at Manchester United although he has found himself to be second choice to Ashley Young many times term. Ronaldo, by contrast, is the first name on the team-sheet for Jose Mourinho at Real Madrid. The number 7 has been in scintillating form for Los Merengues scoring a staggering 46 league goals and weighing in with numerous assists as Real swept to the La Liga title, racking up more than one hundred points.
That said, keep an eye out for Fabio Coentrao. A skilful left back with pace to burn he can also play as a left winger and is an excellent crosser of the ball, Coentrao plays his club football with Ronaldo at Real Madrid in Spain and has forged an almost telepathic understanding with his fellow countryman down Real’s left side. So much so in fact that he has climbed in front of, Brazilian, Marcelo in the Real pecking order and regularly gets the nod over him for the big games.
Predicting how Portugal will fare in Poland and Ukraine is difficult, they certainly have the tools to put a run together and make it to the semi-finals, however, it depends on whether they can produce their best football on the big stage. Notoriously slow in qualifying and famously slack in friendlies, recent results such as their 1-3 defeat at home by Turkey, whilst hardly morale boosting, do little to cast light on how the Portuguese will acquit themselves in the tournament proper. What that result did though was again expose the Portuguese weakness in central defence, they may struggle against teams who keep the ball well and press high up the pitch.
With Paulo Bento they have a coach that all the players respect, which is vitally important at international level, and things would appear to be on the rise for them again after a few barren years. Portugal have been drawn in group b along with Germany, Denmark and Holland. This is the so called “Group of Death” and it is unfortunate for Bento’s men to be in it because they would have been almost certain to emerge from any of the other groups. Germany are favourites to finish top, with Holland following close on their heels and I would expect that this will end up being the case. Whilst Portugal are not without hope, they will have to be at their very best throughout the Group stage to have any chance of seeing off such strong rival teams.
Coentrao image by branquinholxpt.Fans image by stefan0.