Will Portugal ever fulfill their potential on the world’s biggest stage?

As Portugal gear up for only their fifth ever FIFA World Cup we begin to ponder once again if they will ever mount a serious assault on football’s grandest stage.

Over the past ten years the Selecção das Quinas have produced some of the finest talent in Europe, most notably Cristiano Ronaldo, and Luis Figo before him. But despite all the technical ability and flair that they posses in huge quantities they have failed to fulfil their potential in footballs most famous tournament.

Prior to the 1986 finals in Mexico the Portuguese had only ever competed in one World Cup. This was in England during 1966 as Benfica’s great Eusebio carried the hopes and dreams of a nation almost singlehandedly as they coasted to the semi-finals despite a scare against Korea in the last eight where they actually trailed 3-0 until four goals from Eusebio and a late goal from Jose Augusto saved their blushes and gave them a 5-3 victory to set up the penultimate tie against hosts and eventual winners England.

A Bobby Charlton brace ended coach Otto Gloria’s dream of making it to the final as they succumbed to a 2-1 defeat despite giving a grand account of themselves as for large parts of the game they were the better team.

Although the heartbreak of missing out on a date with West Germany in the last two despite playing some of the most beautiful football seen in the competition they still ended the tournament on a high note as they ended the tournament in third place as they beat the Soviet Union to cement their greatest ever World Cup ranking to date.

It would be another twenty years for a Portugal team to make it to the big dance as they qualified for the tournament by being the first side to beat West Germany on home soil to consolidate their slot in Mexico 1986. Their heroics came to nothing as they bowed out in the first round despite beating England in their opening game of the tournament thanks to Carlos Manuel.

They would end up losing their next two games against Poland and Morocco as the African outfit and the English made it through to the last sixteen. Their campaign was marred over the ‘Saltillio Affair’ as players in the squad rebelled over a disagreement of prize money with the Portuguese Football Federation. This also included Antonio Veloso testing positive for taking an anabolic steroid which also caused tension within the camp.

Their 1986 appearance in the finals was being built up as an exciting time for the nation as two years prior they had a successful European Championship in France where they narrowly missed out on making the final as they were once again beaten by the hosts as in 1966 as a last minute goal in extra-time from Michel Platini broke their hearts.

2002 and sixteen long years since their last World Cup appearance Portugal were being touted as possible winners for the tournament that was being hosted for the first time in Asia by Japan and South Korea simultaneously. Rewind back to 1989 and 1991 and Portugal had won the FIFA-Under 20 World Cup twice on the bounce as the countries new breed of talent was about to light up the continent for years to come.

Luis Figo, Fernando Couto, Joao Pinto, Rui Costa and Jorge Costa to name a few were all involved in this exciting period for Portuguese football as they were labelled the country’s “golden generation”.

Although they failed to qualify for the 1990 and 1994 World Cup they made it to the Quarter Finals in Euro 96 where this new young side was beginning to take center stage at senior international level. They narrowly lost to eventual finalists the Czech Republic in Birmingham at Aston Villa’s Villa Park.

Portugal was ever so unlucky to miss out on France 98. They were narrowly pipped to the post by reining European champions Germany. As we dawned on a new millennium, Portugal’s side was beginning to peak. They were in a whisker of making it to the Euro 2000 final but their dreams were once again shattered by a French side orchestrated by a phenomenal footballer, Zinedine Zidane. It was his golden goal that evaporated their dream.

The potential in their teams over the years has been staggering. For what ever reason they have never got the rewards they undoubtedly deserve. They had a torrid World Cup in 2002 despite all the hype and the players they beheld such as Luis Figo, who was named World Player of the year for 2001. Poor management was blamed for the countries failure to live up to expectation eight years ago. Their qualifying campaign had hardly seen them break a sweat but they were brought back down to earth in the finals.

They lost their opening game to the USA as they conceded three first half goals. They pulled two back but eventually succumbed to the defeat. Things looked better in the next game as Pauleta contributed with a hat-trick as they cruised to a 4-0 demolition of Poland. Just needing a draw to advance in the next game they failed to achieve this as hosts South Korea defeated them.

Luis Felipe Scolari who had just won the FIFA World Cup with Brazil was drafted in by the Portuguese Football Federation to bring a winning mentality. Something he certainly did. With the European Championships in 2004 being hosted by the nation they made it all the way to the final. Their first appearance in the last two of any major competition. With their date over Greece being billed as a foregone conclusion to end so many years of hurt and reach their destiny they were humbled by the Greeks as they lost to Angelos Charisteas’s goal.

Although the disappointment of losing out at the final hurdle, it was a real sign of progression by the Portuguese as they proved to the World that they deserve to be considerd as a real force on the big stage. On their day they could beat anybody. Scolari’s arrival provided the management they needed to succeed at the highest level. He gave his players self believe and they hung on his every word.

They reached the Semi-Final of the 2006 World Cup where the French would haunt them once again to deny them a place in the showpiece final in the capital of Germany. They were tipped to go far in the competition and they certainly did that. On another day against France it could of been their time but it wasn’t to be. Scolari would depart his post for English shores after the 2008 European Championship as they bowed out to Germany in the quarter-final stage.

Carlos Queiroz who steered the golden generation to their two triumphs in the FIFA Under-20 World Cup was drafted in to replace the departed Scolari. He had also managed the senior pros for two years in the early nineties.

Their qualification to South Africa has been a rocky road. With Cristiano Ronaldo now being the country’s talisman and being named world player of the year like Luis Figo, much was expected of Portugal and the flamboyant winger. They only booked their ticket to the African continent via a play-off victory over Bosnia.

Since then Portugal are quietly entering this summer’s tournament as an outsider. With Brazil, Spain and England being considered the strongest candidates the likes of Portugal, The Netherlands and Italy are being overlooked. This could actually work in their favour. Its dually noted that many favourites to lift a World Cup have failed to deliver. Much like previous Portugal teams in the last decade who have succumbed to the pressure of a major tournament and failed to shine.

Carlos Queiroz’s final 23 may not be as star-studded as it has been in previous years but he does boast some wonderful technically gifted players in his ranks.

Cristiano Ronaldo is the man carrying the hopes of a nation. He has been in scintillating form since 2006. He has immensely matured since the finals in Germany and has gone onto to become one of the elite in world football. A man with one flash of genius can win a game in the blink of an eye. With his presence alone it will work in Portugal’s favour.

Their group is one of the hardest out of the eight. Brazil, Ivory Coast and minnows North Korea stand in their way for a place in the last sixteen. With no disrespect to Korea you would imagine it would be two out of the three to make it through, although stranger things have happened. It is vital that Portugal make a good start in their opening game against the African outfit of the Ivory Coast to enhance their prospects in their final game against opponents and favorites Brazil which could prove to be invaluable.

The midfield area is packed with technical flair. Simao, Raul Meireles, Nani, Deco, Tiago, Miguel Veloso, Pedro Mendes, Danny, Duda and Coentrao make up Queiroz’s nine midfielders.

Ronaldo, Hugo Almeida and Sporting Lisobon’s Liedson make up the attack. Liedson in particular has had a marvellous campaign with his club netting 22 goals.

Pepe of Real Madrid has been declared fit to take part over the course of next month despite missing a large part of the season due to injury. His involvement is a real boost for Portugal. Centre back Ricardo Carvalho also makes the trip after enduring a season hampered with injuries in the Premier League.

Portugal without a doubt pose a threat in this World Cup. At 14/1 for them to lift the gorgeous trophy aloft in Soccer City come July their participation in the finals is evidentially seen as nothing more than a latter stage appearance and nothing more. Although a good qualification campaign proves a nice build up to a major tournament it doesn’t necessarily build a platform for success.

Brazil in 2002 had a shaky route to the finals in Asia and just narrowly qualified. They were being labelled as the worst Brazilian team in history but silenced all their harshest critics as captain Cafu lifted their fifth FIFA World Cup in Yokahoma.

Cristiano Ronaldo relishes the grandest stage and if he turns up in the ‘Rainbow Nation’ then this could be a summer for those in the Algarve to remember.

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