Back in September 2010, with Portugal having drawn 4-4 at home to Cyprus and 1-0 at Norway, not to mention all the turmoil surrounding the Carlos Queiroz case, you’d have to be either a fool or a very brave man to even bet for Portugal to be in Euro 2012, let alone in the semifinals of the event.
Almost 2 years later, though, here we are. After beating Czech Republic 1-0, Portugal are now awaiting for the result of the Spain vs France tie to know who they will have to play for a place in the Kiev final. It’s almost unbelievable that this is the same team who had a very lackluster World Cup in 2010 and was in such dire situation at the beginning of the qualification, but the truth is there haven’t been any significant changes in terms of players.
A lot of the credit must go to Paulo Bento, whose job has been nothing short of remarkable. He has revived the team by keeping it simple and taking the most out of his most talented players. The 4-0 win over Spain in a friendly in October 2010 wasn’t taken very seriously back then (given that it was a friendly), but it was a sign of things to come.
In this Euro, Portugal have managed to defeat Denmark and Holland to get out of the so-called group of death, and both very deserved wins given how the matches went. They’d then proceed to dominate Czech Republic in the quarters, not allowing the Czech to create a single clear-cut chance. Only co-favorites (along with Spain) Germany have managed to get the better of Portugal, and even that was a very tight match where Portugal had their chances. The Portuguese are looking as strong as any other team in this tournament.
One factor that has helped the Portuguese cause greatly is the rise of their most influential and notorious player: Cristiano Ronaldo. The Portuguese superstar has long been the target of immense criticism for his performance with the national team, namely the discrepancy compared to his club level performance, and was made a scapegoat for Portugal’s performance far too often.
In many ways, this Euro 2012 is shaping up to be Cristiano Ronaldo’s tournament. After a somewhat disappointing performance against Denmark, Cristiano has been nothing short of decisive, scoring Portugal’s two goals against Holland in the final of the group stages and the sole and decisive goal against Czech Republic in the quarter finals, with two great overall performances as well.
The Portuguese captain seems to have finally exorcised all the demons of the past and is finally living up to this potential with the national team colors. This is finally ‘his’ team and he’s showing up to be the leader many thought he couldn’t be. A part of the credit must go to Paulo Bento, who has been the first manager to succeed in building a strong, solid team around the country’s biggest superstar. But Ronaldo deserves a lot of credit too; he has grown, he has matured, he’s finally in the prime of his career.
Portugal’s rise and the rise of Cristiano Ronaldo are indissociable. One simply couldn’t have happened without the other: Cristiano Ronaldo could not be shining so brightly without the successful revolution Paulo Bento undertook in the team. And while Portugal have a lot of talented players in all areas of the field, their chances of being a major contender for big trophies were always going to be dependent on the Madeira-born prodigy. With Cristiano reaching his peak, so has the post-Figo generation of Portuguese football.
The semifinals will bring a fearsome duel with either France – who have been Portugal’s bête noire for decades in big competitions, beating them at the semifinals of Euro 1984, Euro 2000 and World Cup 2006, always in close matches – or the defending Euro and World Champions Spain, but there is belief among the Portuguese camp that this might just be their year.
There’s also belief that this might be Cristiano Ronaldo’s Euro, as memorable performances in the next two matches and leading Portugal to their first ever big international title would undeniably add to his legacy and cement his status as one of the best players in European football history. The next two matches will be a chance for Ronaldo to either reignite the critics or shut them up forever.