If one year summed up the highs and lows of Portuguese football, it was most definitely 2004. It was one for the underdog, an anomaly in many ways, going against the grain. That theme was both a blessing and a curse in an Iberian country that has punched above its weight for a very long time now.
The best way to demonstrate Portugal’s overachievement is by looking at the size of the country. Dwarfed in terms of land by neighbouring Spain, with a population of around 10 million people, they have been able to maintain a reputation as an elite side in Europe and across the world, with so many of their alumni enjoying legendary status within the beautiful game.
Twelve years ago, they showed their powers of fighting against more illustrious company on the club scene, and failing embarrassingly as the favourites internationally. At the Arena AufSchalke in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, Jose Mourinho’s FC Porto stormed to victory in one of the most one-sided Champions League finals ever against Monaco. It was also one of the most surprising, because where AC Milan, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Manchester United had all failed, Mourinho’s charges had succeeded, typically ruthless in their execution and embodying the image of their charismatic coach, who had announced himself to the watching world.
Just a month later, Portugal went into the European Championships under a wave of high expectation. Brazilian Luiz Felipe Scolari, fresh from leading his native country to the 2002 World Cup, was in charge, and with the competition set to commence in their own back yard amidst a backdrop of new and modern stadia, a first major trophy in their history was more than a possibility.
It made quite a change from the freedom Porto enjoyed on their run to a second major European title in as many years, having lifted the UEFA Cup in 2003. Pressure and expectation on a country that size could be construed as a little over the top, but Portugal were no strangers to excelling as a footballing nation despite the lack of titles, thanks to the plethora of hugely talented individuals produced over the years.
Immediately, when thinking back to that list, the name of Eusebio is mentioned. A striker with pace to burn and a devastating eye for goal in his heyday of the 1960s and 70s, the Mozambique-born icon led Benfica to the European Cup in 1962, not to mention eleven Primeira Liga titles.
On the international stage, the best he could muster was third place at the 1966 World Cup. But he set a precedent, and the squad of players at Scolari’s disposal was arguably stronger, dubbed the ‘golden generation’ by many. One that should have won something, but as is so often proven, football doesn’t work that way.
Luis Figo led this particular group; by now he was an old head who had demonstrated that he was perhaps the natural heir to Eusebio’s throne. What excited most was the opportunity to go one further, and the perfect mix of youth and experience gave balance to the squad. Deco, Porto’s main instigator, Manuel Rui Costa and an 18-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo, the other man now worth mentioning in that Eusebio argument, were primed and ready.
Squads being assembled to make assaults on the international scene are nothing new, it happened before Portugal and has happened after, but there is always a tinge of sadness when it doesn’t quite reach it’s full potential. There is only a finite opportunity to do so with tournaments only coming round every two years.
Euro 2004 took the same route as that preceding Champions League campaign. Many of the perceived favourites flattered to deceive, with France dropping out at the quarterfinals along with England, and Spain, Italy and Germany falling at the group stages. The Seleccao were perhaps the only elite team to show up, allowing Czech Republic and eventual winners Greece to steal the limelight.
Defeat in the final left Scolari’s men embarrassed, frustrated and licking their wounds, squandering their best chance at silverware yet. It was only the mid-point of the most fruitful era in their history, but Figo was almost 32 and Rui Costa had turned that a few months earlier, their time was coming to an end. Four years earlier, they reached the semi finals in Belgium and Holland, the same stage they went home at two years later at Germany’s World Cup.
Rui Costa’s departure after the tournament perhaps allowed Deco and Ronaldo to shine, but no matter what was achieved later, not winning their own tournament with a squad at the height of its powers will always sting for Portugal.
Reputations may have been built further had they prevailed, too. In the case of Rui Costa, a great in his own right with Benfica, Fiorentina and Milan, memories have faded, more so than his career deserved. Nicknamed ‘il maestro’ in Italy, he was a victim of the team’s strength, failing to stand out as much as he should, never truly making his stamp.
As that squad separated, Portugal have maintained their aura in the game, but struggled to replicate performance overall. Ronaldo is now 31 and has carried the team as a leader in a way few can. His chapter is now closing, and young talent is emerging, but the romantic idea of that ‘golden generation’ relies on nothing but memories.
But that is what makes football great, the inability to predict what will happen. At their lowest ebb this summer, Portugal were finally able to break their duck by winning the European Championships in France. In the final, against the more superior hosts, they were able to exorcise their demons from that night against Greece by turning the tables. Victory was snatched in unlikely fashion, thanks to an extra time goal by Eder, a failed Premier League striker in the right place at the right time.
The legacies of Deco, Rui Costa and Figo will always be great, but that remarkable team will always have a question mark etched on it, showing Portugal are better suited as underdogs. Football doesn’t always follow the script.
About the author – Harry De Cosemo
Harry is a European football writer specialising in English, Spanish and Italian football. He has worked for a number of top publications including MARCA in English, uMAXit football, FourFourTwo and The Press Association.