Portugal and Ronaldo flying high
© AFP

The end of 2013 was a happy time to be a Portuguese football fan, and the start of 2014 no less so. After clinching their place at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ by seeing off Sweden in the European play-off, Portugal had the honour of seeing Cristiano Ronaldo named as the FIFA Player of the Year 2013 and the national team continue to climb the FIFA/Coca Cola World Ranking.

The latest standings, disclosed on 14 February this year, saw Portugal in fourth place, which is just below their best ever position. Between April-June 2010, and in October 2012, the national team occupied their best ever place of third. That high reflected a strong finish in their qualification campaign for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa and the excellent run at the 2012 UEFA European Championship, where Paulo Bento’s team was only halted in the semi-finals on penalties by the eventual winners and number one ranked team Spain.

Portugal were beaten just once in the tournament hosted by Poland and Ukraine, in their opening game against Germany, and racked up important ranking points in beating highly placed teams at the time, such as the Czech Republic, Denmark and the Netherlands. 

Since Paulo Bento took over as head coach, Portugal have seldom been outside the top ten, the exception being the months of September and October last year. At the time the team slipped to 11th and 14th respectively, reflecting some poor results in the qualification campaign for Brazil 2014, notably the defeat in Russia and draws against Israel and Northern Ireland. Those results put paid to Portugal’s chances of being a top seed in the group phase in Brazil, and condemned them to a play-off. 

It would be all smiles at the end of the road to Brazil however, as two victories over Sweden in the play-off shot Portugal back towards the top of the Ranking. They were fifth between November and January, and up to fourth in February. Coach Bento made a point of sharing the laurels for the achievement.   

“The fact we are today in rude health is because of the work done over many years by the Portuguese Football Federation. Several generations of talented players have been carefully nurtured, which has enabled us to rub shoulders with the best in the world,” Bento told FIFA.com during the 2014 FIFA World Cup team workshop in Florianopolis.

More milestones and awards for Ronaldo
While the Portugal coach was at pains to focus on a team effort rather than individuals as a recipe for success, it is impossible to ignore the preponderance of Cristiano Ronaldo for the Portuguese Seleção.

The Real Madrid superstar is the team’s leading figure and it is invariably him who makes the difference at the decisive moments, as perfectly exemplified in the World Cup play-off matches. He scored all four of his team’s goals in the two fixtures, including a stupendous hat-trick in the second leg in Solna, which booked Portugal’s place in Brazil.

And the four goals that he scored not only qualified Portugal for the biggest football tournament on earth, but also saw Ronaldo equal Pedro Pauleta as the all-time record goal-scorer for his nation, having hit the net 47 times. Two more goals in the friendly win over Cameroon surpassed that tally.

“Records are there to be beaten, but it has never been my priority. I knew Portugal needed me and I was happy to do my bit,” said the scoring sensation at the time, who continues to set new landmarks in the Portuguese game.

In January he became the first Portuguese player to win two FIFA Player of the Year awards, surpassing the legend Eusebio and Luis Figo. Should he continue his astonishing form in Brazil, who knows what he can achieve. Portugal have three tough opponents in Group G: Germany, ranked second in the world, USA, ranked 13th, and Ghana, ranked 37th. It will certainly be no easy task, but on current form it is not inconceivable that Paulo Bento’s men can catapult Portugal to their highest ever ranking position.