After winning the 2016 Euros, Portugal’s first ever senior international trophy, 62-year-old manager Fernando Santos declared his side were “simple as doves, wise as serpents”. The simplicity came in the tactics: a bend but don’t break defense with a counterattack lead by Nani, Ricardo Quaresma and Ronaldo. The wisdom was in their game management - they won just one game in regulation and drew their three group matches. Combine the two contrasting elements and you have the makings of a side that navigated injuries and seven different opponents without ever losing its identity, or a game.
Cynics would say that Santos, who managed Greece’s big three clubs and their national team from 2010 to 2014, favored pragmatism and results over entertainment. Portugal certainly had more entertaining sides focused around their world class wingers and attack midfielders. But those sides ended in heartbreak: they didn’t make it out of the group stages in the 2014 World Cup, lost to Spain in both the 2012 Euros and 2010 World Cup knockout stages, lost to Germany in the quarterfinals of the 2008 Euros, and lost to France in the 2006 World Cup semifinals.
The 2004 European Championships, in which Portugal lost 1-0 to Greece in the final, was a pivotal moment for two reasons. First, it was Ronaldo’s international tourney debut, and kicked off a mini-golden age for Portuguese wingers alongside Nani and Quaresma. Secondly, the defensive flexibility displayed by Greece was the highest display of pragmatic football of the last decade and showed how effective that style could be in an international tournament. Then, along came Santos, hired in 2014.
The manager’s emphasis on rotating lineups and squad unity, along with a 2004 Greece-esque pragmatism, were factors that sprung the country’s first international success. Portugal switched between a 4-4-2 and 4-5-1 in formation in an effort to minimize their lack of quality strikers. With an overarching focus on packing the midfield in the defensive phase, Portugal never had higher than 47% possession in their knockout games. After an injured Ronaldo left the field in tears in the finals against France, Pepe implored his teammates to win for their captain. Ronaldo told substitute Eder that he would score the match winner. Santos displayed his gift for metaphors in describing Eder as an ugly duckling who turned into a beautiful swan.
Eder’s inability to break into a Swansea side the previous season showed the importance of building a team on balance and an eye for inserting players in the right moment. Replacing midfielder Renato Sanches in the 79th minute, his link up play brought Nani and Quaresma into the match. In fact, this Portugal side were a mashup of players from leagues all around Europe. From their starting 11 in the finals, Ronaldo and Pepe played in La Liga, Nani in Turkey, Raphael Guerreiro in France, Cedric Soares and Jose Fonte in England, with Rui Patricio, William Carvalho, Adrien Silva, Joao Mario and Sanches splitting their time between Sporting and Benfica. Mario, Sanches, Nani and Guerreiro moved to larger clubs after the tournament, and I’ll add the 2004 Champions League winning Porto side that was constructed largely of Portuguese players as more evidence of the vast talent within.
There is poetry in Santos managing in the country that beat Portugal twelve years earlier, and applying what he learned in victory. Soccer always has a way of coming back full circle somehow.
You could forgive Portugal for their post-championship hangover, as they lost to Switzerland 2-0 in the opening match of World Cup qualifying. Since then, Santos’ side uncharacteristically exploded with goals, hitting six against both Andorra and the Faroe Islands. Going into the November international break, they sit second in Group B with the highest goal differential.
Domestically, the big three of Benfica, Sporting and Porto continue their production line of player development. 20-year-old forward Andre Silva has scored seven goals in eight matches for Porto this season. His emergence is needed as Portugal have been forced to piece a strikeforce together from Nani, Ronaldo and Eder, and it is the one position that the country has struggled to produce world class talent in (although this extends to the rest of Europe). In continuing the club tradition of tricky wingers, 21-year-old Gerson Martins of Sporting is monitored by the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona and Manchester United.
Benfica president Rui Costa described losing their best players every summer transfer window as an opportunity to refresh the development cycle with new Portuguese talent. Academy director Nuno Gomes picked former Benfica now Bayern Munich player Sanches as the country’s next great midfielder. The then 18-year-old became the youngest Portuguese national team player ever selected for an international tournament last summer, scored a match tying goal in the quarterfinals against Poland, and was named Young Player of the Tournament. All three of Silva, Martins and Sanches made their international debut under Santos within the last calendar year. Include the 23-year-old Joao Mario and 22-year-old Guerreiro, both of whom started in the finals against France, along with 23-year-old Barcelona midfielder Adrien Silva, and Portugal will be as talented and cohesive as any side going into 2018.
Santos signed a new four-year contract through 2020 in July. The deal sees him through another round of the World Cup and European Championships. Upon re-signing, Santos emphasized his simple fundamentals of a strong defense and a midfield press that takes advantage of the youth in that position. Otherwise, Ronaldo will be 33 years old, Nani will be 31, and Quaresma will be 35 by the next World Cup. That golden generation had to age one day, but Portugal may be on the cusp of another in center midfield with Sanches, Silva, Carvalho and Mario. Santos’ side not only won their first senior international trophy last summer - they also built the foundation for success at 2018 and 2020.