The first decade of the new millennium saw Portuguese football graced with the most talented players in its history, with the likes of Luis Figo, Vitor Baia, Rui Costa, Deco, Cristiano Ronaldo and Pedro Pauleta winning titles with some of the biggest clubs in the world. Yet when coming together to represent their country, they found silverware elusive, losing out to Greece in front of their own fans in the final of UEFA EURO 2004. Times have changed, however, and though Portugal may not have as many big names as they had then, titles are coming their way.
As if to symbolise that change, the Portuguese managed to overcome the early departure of Cristiano Ronaldo in the recent EURO 2016 final and go on to beat hosts France. And in winning the U-21 European title last year, they did so without the services of their latest prized asset, the new Bayern Munich signing Renato Sanches, who is also absent from the side that is having such an impressive tournament at the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament Rio 2016.
“Don’t ask me to pick out one player from this fantastic side,” former Selecçao Das Quinas forward Pedro Pauleta told FIFA.com, when asked if there might be a new Cristiano Ronaldo lurking in Portugal’s Olympic team, in which the likes of Pacienca, Bruno Fernandes and Salvador are excelling. “It would honestly be impossible for me to speak about one player in particular when the thing that makes this team so strong is the fact that they’re a unit.”
Capped 88 times by his country and its second-highest scorer with 47 goals, the “Eagle of the Azores” is a living link between the golden generation he once formed part of and the one that is making a name for itself today. A first-hand witness to the semi-final loss at EURO 2000 and that defeat to Greece in the 2004 final, he made a direct contribution to Portugal’s continental finals win this year, having been the head of youth development with the Portuguese Football Federation (FPF) since 2012.
“The EURO 2016 win obviously meant a lot to me because I played for many years in France,” he said. “I have a huge amount of respect for the country and, deep down, I think that if my country hadn’t won the final, I could have found consolation by telling myself that it was France that had won.
“My own feelings aside, though, it’s a title that is hugely important for my country. We’ve got our reward at last. We’ve come so close in the past, and I should know: I’ve lost finals and semi-finals. But our time has finally come, and I really think we deserved it. We’ve worked so hard to make this day of glory happen.”
While Portugal’s seniors are the kings of Europe – as are the country’s U-17 side – the fact is that the football world has become accustomed to the sight of Portuguese youngsters fighting it out for silverware in recent years, with the U-19s having contested the 2014 continental final and the U-21s – in booking their place at Rio 2016 – doing likewise last year.
Ballon d’Or number four? “It’s all the result of some very hard teamwork over the last four to five years, a process in which the FPF and our clubs have been engaged,” said Pauleta, who played for Paris Saint-Germain, Bordeaux and Deportivo La Coruna among other clubs, but never graced the Portuguese top flight.
“We all work together as a team, and we base what we do on training and development, in a technical, physical and tactical sense. We strive to get the players in the best possible shape so that they can perform to the best of their ability when it comes to tournaments. There’s no secret to it and it allows us to bring through high-quality players.”
While Pauleta is reluctant to predict who the next Cristiano might be in the current high-class crop of youngsters, he is not slow to heap praise on the Real Madrid star, who looks to be right on course for a fourth FIFA Ballon d’Or: “He’s a phenomenal player, and it would be great if Portugal can help him win another Ballon d’Or. He’s given so much to the country. He won the Champions League and the European Championship. He had a fantastic season. We’re very happy for him and for the rest of the players, because, and I’ll say it again, it’s the team and the country that counts as far as we’re concerned.”
Portugal now have an Olympic quarter-final to look forward to, and are hoping to kick on to collect gold, as Pauleta confirmed: “Everything’s gone well so far. We’ve reached the second phase of the competition and we’re unbeaten. Long may it last!”