Portugal’s football team are currently enjoying a self-proclaimed ‘Golden Era’, much to the chagrin of England fans. For the English, the defining moment of the Portugal football team will always be Wayne Rooney receiving the red card after altercations with Carvalho and Ronaldo in the 2006 World Cup. However, the ‘Golden Boys’ have proved one of the most entertaining teams of recent years, consistently providing dramatic, stylish performances.
The team made it to their first World Cup in 1966, and they started well in the group stage when they won surprise victories over Hungary, Bulgaria, and defending champions Brazil. These wins gave the new boys a huge confidence boost, but in the quarter-finals against Korea they were 3-0 down and looked likely to go out of the tournament. Remarkably though, they provided a stunning comeback and took a 5-3 victory. Unfortunately. a match against the hosts – and ultimate winners – of that World Cup, England, resulted in a 2-1 defeat for Portugal and killed their hopes of reaching the final. The match was notable for the particularly high number of bookings.
However, the loss of the cup from Portugal’s sights was slightly sweetened by a 2-1 victory against the USSR that sent Portugal into third place. Indeed, the 1966 World Cup was a high point for one of Portugal’s legendary teams, and particularly for national darling, the Mozambican-Portuguese Eusebio da Silva Ferreira, who had been elected European Footballer of the Year in 1965. Eusebio was the top scorer in the World Cup that year, with nine goals, and he would hold Portugal’s goal record for another forty years until Pauleta surpassed him with 42 international career goals in 2005.
Re-emergence In The 1980s
After debuting at the World Cup in 1966, Portugal failed to qualify for another important international tournament for nearly 20 years. The team scraped through the qualifiers into the 1984 European Championship. They then scraped through the group stages with two draws and a win, which sent them through to play host team France in the semi-finals. In a match that was to be echoed in the 2000 European Championship and again in the 2006 World Cup, France managed a single goal in a semi-final match against Portugal which would carry them through to the finals. In 1984, a tense ninety minutes went into extra time on a 2-2 draw, with France pulling forward for a 3-2 win on a golden goal.
After this unlikely success, Portugal were favoured by fans and bookies alike to go far in the 1986 World Cup. Expectations were further raised when, during the qualifiers, they became the first team to beat West Germany at home in an official match. However, disputes and politics intervened and Portugal fell at the first post. After winning their first game 1-0 against England, the players went on strike over prize money issues. They refused to train between games, and as a consequence they lost their next two matches against Poland and Morocco, finding themselves out of the tournament without even making it through the group stages.
Disappointment and controversy
The next international tournament that Portugal made it into was the European Championship in 1996. Portugal finished highest in their group in the first round, but lost out in the quarter-finals to the Czech Republic, who would eventually be runners up.
The 1998 World Cup qualifiers provided high drama for Portugal’s fans. During a match against Germany away, Rui Costa was controversially sent off for failing to walk off the field quickly enough. The game finished as a draw, which sent Germany through and saw Portugal just fail to make the tournament. The Portuguese were incensed, and the national media accused FIFA of favouritism towards Euro champions, and hosts, Germany.
The Golden Generation
The anger was, in a sense, justified, as the controversial decision would frustrate Portugal’s hopes of playing in an important international tournament for two years. As a result, the new line-up unveiled for the 2000 European Championship had been waiting to get on the pitch for some time.
This tournament saw the inaugural successes of what has been called the ‘Golden Generation’ of Portuguese footballers, spearheaded by captain ‘Golden Boy’ Luis Figo, who had been winning international youth championships since the late 1980s. Players like Pauleta, Sousa and Costa have become household names all over the world, despite the fact that many have retired now, or are reaching the end of their footballing careers.
In 2000, the Golden Boys swept through the first round with victories over England, Romania and Germany to finish top in their group. However, in another semi-final match against World Cup-holders France, the new line-up failed to secure their place in the finals. Portugal took the lead in the first half, but after equalizing, Zinedine Zidane ultimately took victory for France with a golden goal scored off a deflected penalty. The match had been tense and continually hinted at violence, with heated disputes over the referee’s decision to award the spot kick for a handball after Abel Xavier blocked a shot from Sylvain Wiltford.
Portuguese media complained of unfair treatment, but international pundits accused the squad of thuggish behaviour, and three Portuguese players received lengthy suspensions for shoving. However, individual success did follow, with captain Luis Figo winning European Footballer of the Year that year, and FIFA Player of the Year in 2001.
Portugal made it through to the next World Cup in South Korea 2002. Although they were favourites in their group, a 3-2 defeat by the USA dampened hopes at the beginning of the competition. The next match, a 4-0 victory over Poland, upped the stakes, but a red card for Pinto and two yellow cards for Beto sent Portugal down to nine men. They desperately needed the match against South Korea to be a draw, but Park Ji-Sung scored a winner for the hosts, and incredibly Portugal were out of the competition.
The early years of the new millennium were times of change for Portugal. The 2004 European Championship marked the meeting of two generations of Portuguese footballers, the ‘Golden Generation’ fronted by Figo, and the ‘Next Golden Generation’ fronted by Cristiano Ronaldo. This tournament was the first time that these older and younger players would play together in a major tournament – the next time being in the World Cup 2006, before the retirement of Figo and many of his team-mates from international football.
Euro 2004 was also Portugal’s first tournament under new ‘Super coach’, Luis Felipe Scolari, also known as ‘Felipao’, or ‘Big Phil’. Scolari was already famous for taking his home country, Brazil, to victory in the World Cup. Portugal’s prospects looked extremely good under Scolari’s control, with a team of national legends and new young stars being coached by an international maestro.
Portugal hosted the 2004 European Championship, and despite losing their first match 2-1 against Greece, they went all the way to the final. In the final, for the first time in the history of the competition, the two teams who played in the opening match met one another once more. Portugal were defeated by a single goal from Greek striker Angelos Charisteas. Nonetheless, the Golden Generation had made good their promise to take Portugal further than they had ever been before.
After the tournament, captain Luis Figo announced his retirement, but returned to the squad for the World Cup qualifiers in 2005. Much to the amusement of the press, Figo promised to quit again after the qualifiers – and then returned again to lead his country in the 2006 World Cup, after which he quit international football for good.
World Cup 2006
On the eve of the World Cup in spring 2006, the team’s future seemed to hang in the balance with Scolari in talks to replace Sven-Goran Eriksson as England coach. However, he turned down the opportunity for a number of reasons, one of which was the fact that he would not be able to focus on Portugal sufficiently in the forthcoming competition if he had already signed with one of their competitors.
Scolari’s Portugal were scene-stealers at the 2006 World Cup. With star Pauleta the lead goal scorer in the qualifiers, it looked likely that Portugal were destined to go far in this tournament, hosted by Germany, but the frustration of optimistic predictions in previous tournaments led the management to be cautious about their hopes for the event.
The team cut through the group stage, conceding just one goal during victories over Mexico, Angola and Iran. They came highest in their group. In the next round, they defeated Holland 1-0 in a bitterly fought match with sixteen yellow cards shown and four sendings off.
In the quarter-finals, Portugal continued on their World Cup tour of controversy in the infamous match against England. Wayne Rooney was sent off after apparently lashing out at Ricardo Carvalho. In the ensuing outcry, Portugal’s young star Ronaldo was seen appealing vociferously to the referee against England’s young star Wayne Rooney, who was his friend and Manchester United team-mate. Rooney then pushed Ronaldo and was shown the red card.
After the dismissal, Ronaldo was filmed winking at the Portuguese bench. England lost the match on penalties, and back in England, the repercussions began immediately. Post-match, Rooney denied any intention of injury and added that although he bore no ill-will towards Ronaldo, he was "disappointed" that his Manchester United teammate chose to get involved. This ultimately presented serious problems for the young Portuguese star as a player in the English league. Indeed, at the end of 2007 google announced that one of the most popular searches conducted on their search engine in England over the past year was ‘I hate Ronaldo’. However, despite considering leaving the country, Ronaldo was persuaded to stay at Manchester United by manager Alex Ferguson.
Whatever really happened on the pitch, Portugal were through to their first semi-finals for the first time in over 40 years. Facing a hostile crowd of English and French fans, and with two players out through bookings, Portugal were narrowly defeated 1-0 by France, the single goal scored by Zidane after Henry had been awarded a penalty. There was more animosity after the referee failed to award Ronaldo a penalty after he was felled in the box, and Portugal were sent out with low morale.
Their contest for third place took place against host team Germany in Stuttgart, and again two Portugal players, Miguel and Carvalho, had to sit the match out after being booked in earlier matches. Germany took the upper hand in the second half and finished the match victorious with a 3-1 score.
This World Cup had been the great hope for Portugal’s ‘Golden Generation’, for many of whom this would be the last international tournament, and despite a remarkable bumpy ride, the club had got further than any other Portuguese team for nearly half a century. Goalkeeper Ricardo only conceded one goal in regular play up until the contest for third place against Germany, and the squad were welcomed home as heroes. Their antics inspired fans and FIFA to award them the ‘most entertaining team’ award. They also acquired another dubious honour as recipients of the greatest number of yellow cards received by a single team in a single World Cup. The team took a tally of 24 yellow cards home with them, largely thanks to the bitterly-fought match against Holland.
After the 2006 World Cup, the departure of many of the team’s stalwarts meant formations and tactic had to be reconceived. Scolari decided to concentrate on young new players to bring life to the new squad, with the management putting all their chips on the players who they hope will be the stars of the future, including Ronaldo, Veloso, Carvalho and Fernandes.
Many of the new stars of the Portuguese team have followed in the footsteps of the ‘Golden Generation’ by making their way up through an extremely successful national youth team, and the squad is already being dubbed ‘The Next Golden Generation’ by some pundits. Indeed, Cristiano Ronaldo has even taken Figo’s ‘Golden Boy’ title, and was invited to captain the team for a one-off friendly against Brazil. This unusual appointment was the realization of the dying wish of former Portugese Football Federation President Carlos Silva. Silva had asked the favour of Scolari as he knew that Ronaldo expected a difficult time from England fans at the match, though Scolari himself was disapproving and stressed that captains should really be a veteran member of the squad.
Portugal qualified comfortably for Euro 2008, with Ronaldo one of the qualifiers’ highest scorers. Scolari’s famous temper got him into trouble with UEFA after a scuffle with a Serbian defender during a qualifying match. He has already announced his intention to leave Portugal after Euro 2008 but, for the moment, Portugal’s future under ‘Felipao’ seems likely to secure them success in any tournaments they enter.
Club Honours & Records
- World Cup – Semi-Finalists (1966, 2006)
- European Championship – Runners-up (2004), Semi-Finalists (1984, 2000)
- Most goals – Pauleta (47, 1997–2006)
- Most appearances – Luis Figo (127, 1991-2006)
- World Cup Highest Scorer – Eusebio (1966, 9 goals)