Portugal in Russia 2018: Small beams of hope on a cloudy horizon

Portugal enter this year’s World Cup as defending European champions, but a few things about the national team inspire any sort of confidence. Like for the last decade, all their hopes will rest on Ronaldo and a little help from the support cast.

Pablo takes a glance at his wristwatch. The short hour hand is approaching number ten and beginning to close in on its second revolution. Steam rises from the green surface. The light rays, that left their stars millennia ago, illuminate through the open roof of Fisht Olympic Stadium. The audience has taken their seats, readying themselves for the upcoming staging. The stadium breathes in a spectrum of colours, resembling an organism about to burst to life. Nigerians, Peruvians, Finns, Poles, Indians and Filipinos.

The props include just two propped-up fishnets and twenty symmetrical lines. Instead of the milieu, the occasion is sanctified to 22 men and the drama they are can compose with a single inflated sphere. Magistas, Gyro Gearlooses, Jacks of All Trades, Prodigal Sons, Boxers, Beagle Boys, Napoleons, Cains and Abels. They’re all there. And muse is about to let them loose. It’s Portugal against Spain. Half of the world has simultaneously lighted up their black mirrors. Magic floats in the air. For the next 105 minutes, it is virtually impossible to be invested in anything besides this matchup.

From the west of Iberia, however, an incontrovertible nervousness arises. Fear of the 2014 FIFA World Cup rerun is present. A fear that A Seleção das Quinas sinks to a third place in their respective group for the third consecutive time in major tournaments. But why? Outwardly everything seems to be rotating as they should. European championship from France, a statistically undefeated parade from the FIFA Confederations Cup, convincing walk-through in last year’s World Cup qualifiers and third-place in the FIFA World Rankings (as of March 2018).

***

Tournaments have a habit of emphasizing the importance of red-hot players. Is there anything more fervent than a ‘baller’ filled with youth, painting triangles as if his his daily bread depended on them (see precedent: James Rodríguez). In retrospect, Portugal sojourned in an ideal state two years ago. One half of the team was on the verge of breakthrough (e.g. João Mário, Raphaël Guerreiro, Renato Sanches), while the other half had already been seasoned with European and world championships, on club level. Nani and co. had already tasted the caviar. Therefore, they did not fumble. Even though over seventy thousand blue eyes were waiting for them to do so.

Now, two years later, things have changed. The veterans are dwindling (quite naturally) and some of those late, shining millennials haven’t been able to properly announce themselves to the people, who skip Valentine’s Days to witness Cristiano Ronaldo’s heroics through their TV screens. And that’s something Portuguese people didn’t wish for.

Slump

“Time is the enemy whose patience can’t be exhausted”

– Glen Cook

Pepe and José Fonte. The double act, in which Fernando Santos placed his trust in at the UEFA Euro 2016, the following year’s FIFA Confederations Cup and 2018 World Cup qualifiers. If Pepe was not available, Santos just slotted Bruno Alves into the starting eleven. As Cristiano Ronaldo would say, “so it [was] simple”.

During the aforementioned tours, Zenit’s Luís Neto, 30, played once — in the third place play-off, scoring an own goal in the process. Three months later, however, in the crucial World Cup qualifying match against Switzerland, Santos returned to his old habits and fielded the usual suspects, Pepe and Fonte, leaving Alves awaiting for his moment in the dugout.

Santos’ motifs worked coherently: Patricio kept a clean sheet and Portugal progressed to the World Cup finals. But since then, everything has changed. Judging by Fonte’s and Alves’ post-2017 performances, Santos might have no choice but to renovate the lower floor ahead of this summer’s festival.

***

“Yeah, you took your shot and didn’t miss it / Ain’t nothing more attractive than ambition”

– That Canadian multi-millionaire who wears his hair like Owen Wilson

When Fonte was given a chance to replace Ricardo Carvalho after group stages at the European Championships, he grabbed that opportunity with both hands. Especially in the final, at Stade de France, the Lusitanian showcased his defensive adroitness, sweeping clearances behind Pepe, that intimidating non-cognitivist. But since then, Fonte’s course of career has shifted to recession. In January 2017, he tried to make the next step in his career by swapping his faithful mistress, Southampton, to the bright lights and late nights of London. The move to West Ham, however, didn’t prove out to be as fertile as he had hoped for. Fast forward to the present day. Following a public humiliation, a knee injury and manager change, Fonte opted for a move to the newly promoted Chinese Super League side Dalian Yifang.

On 3 March 2018, in the opening match with his new club, Fonte dropped, as they say on ‘football twitter’, a disaster class. Dalian Yifang let in eight goals against Shanghai SIPG, and scored none themselves. During the unrememberable evening, Fonte conquered just one aerial mano a mano, committed the foul for Hulk’s 37th-minute penalty and got subbed out after 80 minutes, like the boyfriend of R. Kelly’s lover in that Justin Bieber song, shamefully in face of a superior rival.

Even though Fonte might act as the Portuguese personification of patience and resilience, I believe it is justified to claim that Seleção Portuguesa de Futebol can’t be crowned as the world champions by counting on him.

“Soo cold, soo cold / Soo cold, soo cold / Soo cold”

– Pre-chorus of Mick Jenkins’ “40 Below”

And then there is Bruno Alves. A man who is blessed with a ‘blendy’ figure of Samson and a soap opera cougar’s secret lover.

When Alves and Fonte played side by side during the bygone two years, every second seemed to suffer a slow and painful death. Every touch by the opposition densened the mood among those dressed in carmine. And now, it seems, Alves’ situation has only gotten more bizarre, with contradicting reports surfacing from Scotland.

According to Dougie Wright of Superscoreboard, Alves has only been playing for Rangers when not feeling any discomfort. It goes without saying that the allure of the World Cup has been the driving force behind this decision. The Daily Record, however, suggests that Alves’ career has been going downhill for some time now, and that decline started during Pedro Caixinha’s short-lived and experimental stint as a maritime pilot. In December 2017, The Guardian’s Roddy Forsyth agreed with Daily Record, emphasizing that ever since Graeme Murty took charge, Alves hasn’t been an indispensable part of Rangers’ blueprints anymore. “I like to play. If I don’t have space here or if I don’t play, I need to think about my future or about what’s going to happen next”, admitted Alves before the transfer window closed this January.

In other words, in order to receive regular playing time and keep their World Cup dreams alive, Alves and Fonte hiked far beyond the greenest pastures of Europe. But now their journeys are proving out to be more or less fruitless.

That could undoubtedly open the airplane door for Rúben Dias or Rolando, for example.

New spires and a crescendo of personalities

The situation of Portugal’s full-backs ain’t as alarming as their colleagues’ one. Even though Raphaël Guerreiro has underwent somewhat a tapered season at Borussia Dortmund, his situation is steadily ameliorating. And if the Caen product is safe and sound in the summer, his pocket-knife-esque versatility and technical expertise should provide him a starting spot in Zé Povinho’s lineup. Behind him, a reborn Fábio Coentrão awaits for his moment to (at least partially) complete his renaissance.

On the right, Fernando Manuel Costa Santos has no shortage of talented subordinates at his disposal: Cédric Soares and Nélson Semedo, not to mention Inter Milan’s João Cancelo and Porto’s Ricardo Pereira. Santos himself rates Cédric eminently highly, since the Singen-born 26-year-old fits quite well into gaffer’s defense-directed 4-4-2. Even though being relatively mediocre, Cédric’s ongoing campaign has been, in my opinion, consistent.

Or as consistent as it could’ve possibly been under Mauricio Pellegrino’s swan song.

Semedo, on the other hand, arrived in Barcelona from Benfica last summer in a deal worth over thirty million euros. Despite the fact that he has his name written under the most promising young defenders subheading of football’s epos, the 24-year-old stripling has failed to convince Ernesto Valverde. Nevertheless, Semedo’s offensively-minded nature could offer Santos an interesting alternative to Cédric.

The lack of playing time, however, might cost him a spot in World Cup squad. Especially since Pereira has been a colossal component for Porto throughout their prestigious campaign.

***

It would be an understatement to declare that Portugal seems ‘interesting’ as their entire squad bubbles with multidimensional and spellbinding characters, who compel you to watch.

From singularly brave and well-mannered André Gomes (my idiosyncratic favorite Barcelona player, alongside Andrés Iniesta) to the one and only Ricardo Quaresma. Quaresma’s and Gelson Martins’ creativity alone can create goal-scoring opportunities when there are supposed to be none.

Moreover, we shall not forget the prospect of Renato Sanches. The golden boy who notoriously sensed the agony of existence in the middle of a match at Stamford Bridge. Moved to Bayern Munich two years ago, now carefully carving his name out of limbo with the ghosts of Dani, Quaresma and Fábio Paím looming over him.

And then there are the new kids on the block: Gonçalo Guedes (Valencia), Bernardo (Manchester City) and André Silva (AC Milan). Former Monaco winger, Bernardo Silva, crossed the English Channel last summer, in order to take advantage of Pep Guardiola’s dominance. Through Leroy Sane’s and Raheem Sterling’s injuries, he received an opportunity to showcase his potential and made the most of it, scoring game-winning goals against Arsenal and Chelsea in March.

Watching him and Guedes composing librettos with their feet, pausing and luring defenders out of position, is akin to reading a book. You become transfixed, waiting for something startling to happen. In addition to them, André Silva is gradually gathering pace in Italy as well, netting GWG’s against Genoa and Chievo just before the international break.

João Mário's playmaking abilities will be crucial for Portugal this summer. He also provides a solid physical presence in the centre of the pitch to help with defensive duties.
João Mário’s playmaking abilities will be crucial for Portugal this summer. He also provides a solid physical presence in the centre of the pitch to help with defensive duties.

From Primeira Liga, I’d like to highlight Bruno Fernandes, William Carvalho and Danilo. But pardon me for getting most excited about the first name mentioned. Even though João Moutinho has been blooming in France in an advanced role with Monaco, he is gradually becoming a potential protagonist for the sequel of The Discovery of Slowness. And that’s why Fernandes could be a pivotal option from an offensive standpoint, especially against smaller nations such as Morocco or Iran (potentially in the Round of 16 as well; depending on the opposition). In a friendly match against Egypt on 24 March, he flashed his artistry, propelling Portugal’s comeback after coming on in the 76th minute. “Bruno Fernandes trouxe coisas diferentes ao jogo”, admitted Fernando Santos.

Unlike Adrien Silva, Fernandes is an engine who flourishes everywhere in the midfield area (most prominently in the middle), bouncing pinpoint crosses, splashing worldies and laying the ball for clear-cut chances. Naturally, he was the main catalyst behind Sporting’s triumph over European regular Viktoria Plzeň. As of now, though, he is a relatively unknown 100-million euro baby who is promptly reaching those red-hot levels I mentioned earlier, looking to thrill the world this summer. On the 5th of April, he will be taking on Atlético Madrid in UEFA Europa League. No excuses for anyone not to check him out.

***

Without injuries, the 30-year-old Rui Patricio will be guarding Seleção’s net in Mother Russia’s backyard. The Lisbonite may not be bona fide on Thibaut Courtois’, Alisson’s or Ederson’s level (partly due to his occasionally bland vocal and physical presence), but few realise how inimitable asset he really is. With the departure of Adrien Silva, Patricio has once again donned Sporting captain’s armband with that impassable 2015–16-esque return.

In other words, he looks set to bring his A game to the resplendent showpiece as well.

***

“It would be a lie to say that we are a top team. We have a very limited team and we are not at the best level. There are no miracles. We knew we would have a tough group, with perhaps teams better than us. I never thought we could win the tournament.”

– Ronaldo clearing his mind in the wake of eliminating from the 2014 World Cup

On top of Santos’ pyramid, lurks the Number One Dime of Portugal, Cristiano Ronaldo. A man who has reformed his persona in a way not seen since the days of Martin Luther and Protestant Reformation.

Ronaldo proved that World Cup indeed means the world to him, as he threatened the course of his career by participating in the Brazilian festival of football, an olympiad ago. Forcing him to watch the other team celebrate after a lost World Cup final, would be equivalent of profaning Nu couché in front of Peter Schjeldahl. Conquering the final, instead, would make him modern day equivalent of Diagoras of Rhodes. A man who deprived his life after realising he couldn’t get any higher.

“”I wouldn’t ask too much of her,” I ventured. “You can’t repeat the past.” “Can’t repeat the past?” he cried incredulously.

“Why of course you can!” He looked around him wildly, as if the past were lurking here in the shadow of his house, just out of reach of his hand.

“I’m going to fix everything just the way it was before,” he said, nodding determinedly.”

– An excerpt from The Great Gatsby.

Hoisting those mythological gold-plated miniatures would wrap a smile on Ronaldo’s face, a smile not that much different to new mother’s one.

On the palms of Gladstone Gander

I remember cheering for Portugal during the Euro 2016. How could I have not?

There were people laughing at Santos as his cynical approach struggled to defeat anyone in the first five matches. Critics, though, did not see how he obstinately defied Portuguese traditions. Like that graphic novel character — Julius Corentin Acquefacques — who realised that he was living on two-dimensional pages in a three-dimensional world.

The viewers who tuned in, however, thought that they were just witnessing epitomes of dullness.

Moreover, spectators and TV stations made a meal out of Ronaldo’s struggles. And who can blame them? The contrast was evident when Portugal no. 7 failed to capitalize on a penalty against Austria, while Lionel Messi was dragging his country to the Copa América Centenario Final with goals worth Puskás Award nominations.

There were journalists who were eager to witness Ronaldo’s potential downfall. There were Portuguese supporters to whom their talisman acted as a real-life representation of the billionaire of Dismal Downs.

One time, an acquaintance of mine complained during the round of 16 fixture, against Croatia, about Ronaldo’s lack of movement. How he just waited for serves to arrive. Then the inevitable happened. Ronaldo deprived the ball from Ivan Strinić, launched a counterattack from his own half and allowed Quaresma to putt the game-winning tap-in (UEFA awarded Ronaldo an assist). Naturally, I laughed due to sheer feel-good. I felt like I was on a space flight with a member of the Flat Earth Society, who was being forced to witness earth’s round silhouette.

Thank you Ronaldo. Thank you Quaresma.

The fact that Ivan Perišić had rattled the upright just a moment earlier, emphasized the feeling further and transported me on the verge of euphoria. I had not experienced anything like that, in terms of football at least, since that header by Sergio Ramos.

Since that volley by Mario Götze. Since that championship-winning penalty by Ronaldo.

“Wise men say / Only fools rush in / But I can’t help falling in love with you”

– Elvis Presley (reportedly) wrote this while thinking about soccer

You can only imagine how I felt during the quarter-final matchup between Portugal and Poland, not to mention the final (in which André-Pierre Gignac struck the woodwork, by the way). In unpredictability, lies their allure. Knowing that a single dew under player’s studs could end the dream of Lusitanians. At the World Cup as well.

Presumably, Portugal will be submerged out of the tournament in the quarter-finals. But on the other hand, Uruguay, Egypt or Russia could decide their fate in the round of sixteen as well. Maybe they’ll be lackadaisical in the group stages, and stumble over Iranian and Moroccan barricades.

Or maybe, they’ll anesthetize everyone and trample them down — just like they did two years earlier on European soil.

“Brazil, Argentina, Spain, Germany and France are the favourites to win the World Cup. Then we have other candidates, who want to get as far as possible, and win the tournament if possible, and Portugal are in this second group”

– Fernando Santos

Nobody knows what will happen. There’s something poetic in it and its unifying influence. Being the underdog, yet having a bucketful of talent at your team’s disposal. Even the captain himself undergoes a certain type of metamorphosis when donning the exalted red shirt, comforting his compatriots during penalty shootouts and sharing moments with Santos that would shame Alex and Michèle of Les Amants du Pont-Neuf.

For Pablos, enjoying this summer’s festival is akin to a rollercoaster ride. For a minute they are up, but the next they are falling down. For how long Portugal stays up, largely depends on Santos’ ability to identify his own weaknesses. As Egypt and Netherlands showed, Seleção needs to find a way to evade narrow and compact formations vertically and more efficiently. They need to find a way to keep their offensive structure from collapsing.

On top of that, Santos is faced with the conundrum of creating chemistry between a number of new individuals as well.

On paper, Portugal should face Uruguay, France and Brazil en route to final in the World Cup. If Santos intends to reach the final by relying on crosses and Ronaldo’s form, the realization of such plans would not just require an enormous amount of luck but their talisman would also have to defy the laws of physics.

I’m not saying it isn’t possible, though.

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Marco Heta

Found writing in third grade, discovered football in seventh. Five years later, combined them.