The Plan | Recent times and games have raised some doubts about Portugal’s possibilities of going far in this World Cup. In particular, the defeats against Serbia (which sent Fernando Santos’ team to the World Cup qualifying play-off) and Spain (which meant they missed out on the Nations League finals. The two losses exemplify the team’s current inconsistency as they fluctuate between playing some splendidly attractive football and retreating in fear of conceding and defending badly. The team capable of thrashing Switzerland and the Czech Republic have also struggled in two games against Ireland.
Despite the upheaval, Santos’ optimism heading into the tournament seems as high – or even higher – as ever. In 2016 he announced that the team would not come back until after the final, and they won the tournament. This time he has only said: “The best is yet to come [from this team] and it will come this year. I can’t be more concrete than that.” This Portugal squad have enough quality and quantity when it comes to world-class players to think about an unprecedented World Cup title, but they arrive in Qatar with two huge question marks around two unavoidable figures. Pepe, who will be 40 next year, has struggled physically, and Cristiano Ronaldo has had to deal with the fact that he is not a certain starter at Manchester United.
Despite the uncertainties, Santos is likely to stick to his 4-3-3 that often turns into a 4-4-2 as Bernardo Silva moves from the right-hand side and into the middle. Rafael Leão, who has been one of the best players in Serie A this season if not the best, is likely to be the main benefactor from Diogo Jota’s injury and start on the left side of the attack.
The Coach | Winning Euro 2016 naturally granted Fernando Santos a place in Portuguese football history but recent results have eroded some of the credit gained then. Adding the 2019 Nations League title did not hurt, of course, but elimination in the last 16 from the 2018 World Cup and, especially, Euro 2020 as well as the struggles to reach Qatar has increased criticism of the 68-year-old. Santos appears unruffled though and when asked about his future after the Nations League defeat against Spain he said: “This defeat doesn’t concern me at all. We conceded a goal at the end, that’s it. I have a contract until 2024 and that’s it. The fact is, though, at the contract has also caused some damage to his reputation as he belatedly had to pay €4.5m in tax to the authorities after it was reported that he was being paid through a company, rather than as an individual.
Star Player | “My path with the national team is not over yet,” Cristiano Ronaldo said when receiving an award from the Portuguese FA in September. “I still feel motivated and my ambitions are as high as ever. I want to continue being part of the team for the World Cup and the 2024 European Championship.” However, there were already doubts about his situation at Manchester United then and it has not got any better in the weeks leading up to the World Cup, with the early walkout against Spurs the nadir. Ronaldo apologised on social media, saying “sometimes the heat of the moment gets the better of you” but the player who has 191 caps and 117 goals for Portugal going into the tournament can’t possibly be in the best shape.
Unsung Hero | A winner of both Euro 2016 and the Nations League in 2019, William Carvalho has now been an essential part of the Portuguese success story under Fernando Santos for longer than many people think. In fact, he is on 75 international appearances going into the World Cup but still struggles to get the recognition he deserves with the national team. True, there are more flamboyant players who hog the headlines but it feels as if “Sir William” is going through one the most consistent periods of his career, playing at a high level for Real Betis too.
Probable Line-up | 4-3-3: Diogo Costa; Cancelo, Rúben Dias, Pepe, Guerreiro (Nuno Mendes); Ruben Neves, William Carvalho (Vitinha), Bruno Fernandes; Bernardo Silva, Cristiano Ronaldo, Rafael Leão
Qatar Stance | Fernando Santos and the players have avoided talking about the controversy surrounding the choice of Qatar to host the World Cup and the issues surrounding human rights and working conditions for the construction workers at the stadiums. “These are things that are beyond us [players] a little bit,” said Bruno Fernandes. “There’s not much we can do. The most important thing for us is that everyone is treated well and that everyone feels included in the best way. Football is for everyone and we want the World Cup to be a great party that everyone can enjoy.”
National Anthem | Patriotic from the start, “A Portuguesa” was written in 1890 (lyrics by Henrique Lopes de Mendonça and music by Alfredo Keil), and appealed to national pride in the face of the “English Ultimatum”, which forced Portugal to withdraw from the African territories between Angola and Mozambique. It begins by talking about “heroes of the sea”, “noble people” and a “brave nation”, and ends with a combative message: “For the country, fight. Against the cannons, march, march!.” As it was the monarchy that had lost the colonies in Africa it only became the national anthem in 1911, a year after Portugal had become a republic.
Cult Hero | Paulo Futre is a Portuguese legend who played at the 1986 World Cup aged just 20 but had the misfortune to represent his country at a time when they often missed out on major tournaments. He still managed to enchant the country with a mesmerising left foot and played for all of the big three in Portugal before becoming a hero at Atlético Madrid. Continued to create headlines after his retirement: in 2011, as a candidate to become Sporting president, he said he would sign a Chinese player and organise charter flights from the country for 400-500 people to watch games each week. Recently got Lionel Messi’s autograph. “In my life, I only asked for an autograph from one player: Diego Maradona,” he said. “And as there have been only two lefties better than me I also wanted Messi’s now.”
By Nuno Travassos of Maisfutebol via Get Football’s partnership with the Guardian