Back in the early 2000s, Portuguese football went through its best ever period at international level, with the team led by Figo and Rui Costa easily qualifying for every competition and coming very close to lifting the trophy at the Euro 2000, World Cup 2006 and especially the Euro 2004 played in Portugal, where Greece ruined the Portuguese party in the final in quite shocking fashion. But clearly the times have changed; ever since Scolari left after the Euro 2008, Portugal have struggled massively to qualify for the big events, let alone compete for the title there, what with the golden generation being no more.
After two consecutive – and successful – playoffs against Bosnia for World Cup 2010 and Euro 2012, this time Portugal’s opponent will be Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s Sweden, a tie that promises to be considerably more challenging than the ties against the Bosnian. Portugal actually got quite a kind group for this qualifying stage, but even then they were beaten by Russia and struggled quite a bit to make it to the playoffs even, contesting close encounters with Northern Ireland and Israel. In the end though, Portugal did make it to their third consecutive playoff round, with the task they face this time around looking quite difficult on paper; not only do Sweden have Zlatan Ibrahimovic – one of the most lauded strikers in European football – among their ranks, they also played excellent football during the qualifying stages, only being second to the always impressive Germany. In fact, their two matches against the German were arguably the two most entertaining fixtures of the entire European qualifying stages: in Germany, Sweden sensationally rallied back from a 4-0 deficit at 60′ to snatch a 4-4 draw in added time in what was certainly one of the greatest comebacks in recent times; in Stockholm the roles were reversed with Sweden going 2-0 up and Germany ending up winning 5-3. What is apparent however is that the Swedes will be a huge obstacle in Portugal’s quest to reach their 8th consecutive World Cup or Euro in a row; if Portugal want to be in Brazil next year, they will have to raise their level considerably compared to what they showed during the group stages, that just won’t cut it against the Swedes.
As has often been the case since the Figo generation faded into the sunset, most of Portugal’s hopes lie on the team’s captain Cristiano Ronaldo, widely regarded as one of the world’s best players. He’s also the only world class superstar in Portugal’s roster at the moment, so a lot is expected of him, much more so than his supporting cast. On his shoulders lie most of Portugal’s hopes of remaining relevant and competitive in the international football scene; however Ronaldo can’t do it alone, he will need the ‘supporting cast’ to help him, as much as they did during the Euro 2012 for instance. With both Ronaldo and Ibrahimovic in great form and both teams showing a lot of weaknesses in defense during the group stages, this promises to be a tense and high scoring tie and for Portugal it will be crucial to seize the advantage in the first leg at home. Sweden’s strong attack and Rui Patricio’s lack of confidence at the moment after some big blunders for his both his club and national team certainly do not bode well for Portugal’s chances.
For Portugal, it will be much more than a simple World Cup qualification at stake, but rather their credibility as one of the Europe’s strongest sides and permanent fixture in big international events. With the Portuguese league remaining extremely one-sided and uncompetitive, and thus general interest decreasing every year, the Portuguese National Team’s performances (along with the top Portuguese teams in European competition) are really the only thing keeping the country’s football relevant on a worldwide scale. It remains to be seen whether the Estádio da Luz crowd will be able to help inspire Portugal towards yet another big event participation.
Meanwhile, while everyone eagerly awaits for the big tie, the domestic competition in Portugal has continued, with Sporting recording two narrow losses to Porto for the league and Benfica in the Cup (with the huge Patricio blunder), which seem to indicate they might not yet be ready to mount a serious challenge for the title, although given the progress shown that can change very soon. The 3-4 defeat at Benfica for the Cup after extra time is bound to leave some psychological marks though. Benfica and Porto only got one point for their double Champions League fixtures against Olympiakos and Zenit, and both might very well be on their way to a 3rd place and therefore a Europa League participation this season from the beginning of the knockout stages bar a massive improvement in performance during the second half of the group stages.
But right now, for most Portuguese football fans it’s all about the National Team. Benfica’s stadium will be full as the crowd try to inspire Portugal to get it done again and book their tickets to Brazil next year. A potential defeat would be the end of a cycle, marking the first time in 16 years Portugal would miss a big international event. The pressure couldn’t be higher for Paulo Bento and co., now it’s up to them to deliver.