Why Portugal Underachieves

The ‘golden’ and future generations have failed repeatedly on the biggest stage

There was optimism around Portugal ahead of this World Cup. Coach Paulo Bento could call upon the reigning Ballon D’Or holder in Cristiano Ronaldo, a superstar for Real Madrid, whose showing in last November’s play-off against Sweden was one of the great all-time individual performances.

Bento’s experienced squad also included two defenders—Pepe and Fabio Coentrao—who had just won the Champions League alongside Ronaldo with Real. In midfield was talented Monaco playmaker Joao Moutinho, alongside one of Europe’s most promising emerging talents in Sporting Lisbon’s William Carvalho. Many fans and pundits seriously thought this team could go far.

But, like so many Portugal teams in recent years, positive hopes have turned to dust. First there was a tough draw that placed them in this tournament’s Group of Death alongside Germany, Ghana, and the U.S. Next came Ronaldo’s well-publicized injury problems, with the 29-year-old captain arriving at what could have been “his” World Cup clearly plagued by both physical and mental anguish.

Then the actual tournament started. The opening game against Germany brought the needless concession of an early penalty, Pepe red-carded for a headbutt, and injuries to three key players, the in-form Coentrao included.

In Portugal’s second game, against the U.S., the troubles continued. Nani had raised hopes by scoring early, but replacement left-back Andre Almeida was out by halftime, and with the team’s entire left side unfit, the U.S. roared back to go up 2–1. Even the late equalizer headed in by substitute Silvestre Varela—assisted by Ronaldo’s one moment of class in the tournament—was barely celebrated by a team that looked down and out.

Such dashed hopes are not uncommon among Portugal supporters. The “golden generation” of Luis Figo, Rui Costa, Fernando Couto, and Paulo Bento (now the coach) burst to prominence in Euro 2000. They crashed out in the group stage in the 2002 World Cup after a shocking loss to the U.S., and they never subsequently delivered on their promise, most famously losing the Euro 2004 final at home to huge outsiders Greece.

The pattern had been set. At the World Cup in Germany in 2006, a team based around an experienced Figo and young Ronaldo flew through the group stages on to the semifinals, but scored just one goal in three knock-out games.

Four years ago in South Africa, a narrow 1–0 elimination in the second round to eventual winners Spain suggested Portugal were still close to a breakthrough. Yet again at Euro 2012 hopes were raised by group wins over Denmark and Holland, before another heartbreaking elimination in the semis, this time on penalties, to their Iberian neighbors.

In recent tournaments the failings have mainly been in attack. Ronaldo, for all his club exploits, has not brought his Madrid form to the biggest international stage, with the exception of that play-off qualifier against Sweden when he scored a hat trick. He missed an excellent late chance to eliminate Spain in Euro 2012, and has still scored just two goals in now three World Cup tournaments.

Right-back Joao Pereira revealed this week—possibly without realizing it—that the apparently super-confident superstar was actually suffering from self-doubt. “Cristiano needs a goal, that is what he is missing,” he said. “It is very important for him to score another goal, to pick up confidence.”

Ronaldo’s mood is reflected in his team. Bento also appears wracked by doubt, as seen by his reluctance to start the inexperienced but exciting Carvalho in midfield. An ambitious, buoyant Portugal side is still quite capable of a big win over Ghana, and if Germany were to beat the U.S. in Thursday’s other Group G game, Bento’s team could still advance to the last 16. But nobody around the Portuguese camp appears to think this possible.

“We were never favorites,” Ronaldo said after the draw with the U.S. “It was just a make-believe dream that Portugal could be world champion. Other countries have better teams.”

Maybe so. But sides such as Costa Rica, Algeria, Mexico, and Chile have all shown that a little belief can go a long way. Portugal’s fear of failure—perhaps after so many dashed hopes in the past—continues to hold them back.