We have hugely fond memories of the Portuguese playing at Euro 96 in England.
The team was a product of a hugely successful pool of youngsters that came together at the same time. The Portuguese won both the 1989 and 1991 editions of FIFA World Youth Championship which later became the Under-20 World Cup.
The Euro 96 squad boasted a number of world class players from the majestic creative talents of Rui Costa and Luís Figo to the dependable Juventus midfielder Paulo Sousa and rock at the back in Fernando Couto. For many fans, their style made them a second team during the tournament but sadly, they succumbed to a spectacular Karel Poborský lob over the stranded Vítor Baía to crash out of the tournament in a 1-0 defeat.
The current national team isn’t blessed with the same number of world class players in the squad, but they have one true superstar in Cristiano Ronaldo and can beat anyone on their day. In the twenty years that have passed since Euro 96 the team has been consistently strong in the Euros- the team has never gone out of the at the group stage with their best performance coming on home soil in 2004.
That year saw them finish as runners-up after Greece upset football’s world order with a series of 1-0 smash and grab wins to claim the tournament for the first time.
With the best odds of 25/1 for Portugal to win the tournament, it doesn’t seem like the bookmakers fancy the team to lift the championship, so we contacted Portuguese football writer Francisco Cardoso Pinto to get his view on his nation’s upcoming campaign in France.
Portugal could be one of the dark horses to win Euro 2016 – what do you make of their chances?
In my pinion their chances are pretty slim. They do have one of the top two players in the world but the supporting cast is not good enough yet. Portugal has some great talent that’s starting to cement their place (João Mario, Wiliam Carvalho, Danilo Pereira, Bernardo Silva, André Gomes, Renato Sanhces, etc.) in the team but they don’t have the experience a competition like the Euro Championships demand of players.
Maybe in the national team will become more serious challengers in a few tournaments time after the youngsters gain more experience at the highest level.
Apart from Ronaldo, who were the stand-out players during the qualifying process?
There really wasn’t anyone besides Ronaldo who caught the eye during the qualifying. I believe the stand out players at the Euros besides Ronaldo will be João Mario (first and foremost) and, if they get a chance to play, Bernardo and Renato Sanches.
Portugal will be the favourites for Group F – How to you think the group will go for the Portuguese?
Portugal has a tradition of playing well against strong opposition and not so well against easier opponents so there is a chance this Euro will not go as planned. Nevertheless, we are the favourites for the group on paper and I believe the team will go through to the next round. My prediction is that Iceland will probably be the toughest opponent as they have been playing very well of late and are somewhat of an unknown quantity.
What kind of football will Portugal play in France?
I believe coach Fernando Santos will employ a 4-3-3 formation. My predicted starting XI is: Rui Patrício, André Almeida (or Cédric), Pepe, Bruno Alves (or José Fonte) and Raphaël Guerreiro(or Eliseu). William Carvalho, João Mário and João Moutinho. Nani, Rafa and Ronaldo. The alternative is to put Mário upfront on the right side, in the place of Rafa, and Adrien Silva in the midfield.
The British and Spanish media alike are suggesting that Ronaldo has peaked and is on the decline as a footballer – do you agree with that assessment?
I believe he is peaking yes. He has been for the last three or four years in my opinion. I agree that in the next few years we’ll see a different Ronaldo.
Even so, he should still win the title of Portugal’s greatest ever player?
I believe he is already the greatest Portuguese player ever. It’s between him and Eusébio and if we consider that it is very difficult to compare players from different generations, i believe it comes down to titles and personal achievements. In that respect, Ronaldo has received more accolades than Eusebio ever did.
Twenty years ago at Euro 1996, the Portuguese had an incredible squad that boasted the likes of Rui Costa, Luís Figo, Vítor Baía, João Pinto, etc. How do you rate the current team?
The current team is much worse than that 1996 team. There was immense talent in every section of the team all the way from the goalkeeper to the strikers. This team is more Ronaldo dependent. But I believe this team in a few years has the potential to be just as good as the one we saw in 1996.
Many British football fans were left frustrated by Nani during his stint with Manchester United – with 94 caps and counting, he is obviously rated in Portugal – what is the general opinion about his career to date?
The general opinion is that he has kind of squandered he’s talent. He could’ve been a much better player considering his talent alone. But he didn’t have Ronaldo’s focus and ambition so he lost his way in those final Man United days. He seems to be doing fairly well with Fenerbahçe in Turkey, but perhaps his time at the very top level in Europe is already over.
Are there any potential star players coming through the youth squads? Who is your tip for a future star in the making?
Manchester United target Renato Sanches is one to look out for in the future. He has broken into the Benfica and Portugal teams at just 18 years-old and has a very bright future. At 23 years-old, João Mário is older and is ready to make an impact now, but I believe Renato’s potential is incomparable to any other Portuguese player of today.
What is your opinion on the strength of the Portuguese compared to other European leagues? Benfica are having a wonderful season – can they be even better and challenge in Europe next year?
The Portuguese league is in the third tier of European leagues in my opinion. The English Premier League above them all. In a second tier we have the Spanish, Italian, German, and French leagues. The Portuguese and Dutch are in that third tier.
As for Benfica, I believe we could do better next year but for that to happen we need to have the ability to maintain our strongest players, like Renato and Nicolás Gaitán. Unfortunately, that’s not possible at the moment because Portuguese clubs can’t offer players what the clubs from the big leagues can. It will certainly be an interesting summer is terms of transfer activity before and after the Euros.
A huge thanks goes out to Francisco Cardoso Pinto for agreeing to the interview and answering in such depth. If you are a fan of Portuguese football please be sure to follow him on Twitter and check out his work on the ‘Box to Box’ website.