One of Portugal best generations of players, led by Cristiano Ronaldo at the end of his career, will go to the World Cup under pressure to show that they are not underachievers.
Over the past 20 years, the soccer scene in Portugal has changed a lot. What used to be a mid-level team is now one of the best in the world, and the country is known as a talent machine.
On paper, Portugal will have some of the best players in Qatar thanks to Bruno Fernandes, Rafael Leao, Joao Felix, Joao Cancelo, Ruben Neves, Bernardo Silva, Vitinha, and others. But in Portugal, theory and reality are not the same.
The rise of forward Cristiano Ronaldo and manager Jose Mourinho had a big effect on the country’s soccer culture and helped them win the Euro 2004 final and the Euro 2016 championship.
But the effect of Portugal’s success at the Euros is quickly fading, and winning the Nations League title at home in 2019 hasn’t stopped the criticism, especially since recent games have been bad.
They lost in the round of 16 at Euro 2020, didn’t make it to the finals of the last two Nations Leagues, and had to go through the playoffs to get to the World Cup this year.
Their most recent loss, at home to Spain in the last match of the group stage of the Nations League, led to criticism of manager Fernando Santos and captain Ronaldo.
Fans and local media are wondering if it’s time for the veteran coach to step down and for Ronaldo to pass the torch to the next generation and take a secondary role on a team full of young, talented players.
The most recent group of players are among the best, but they haven’t been able to shine on the national team because they have to change their game to fit Ronaldo.
After Portugal lost 1-0 to Spain in Braga in October, when they had the ball most of the time but didn’t take advantage of their chances and their smart neighbors scored the game-winning goal in extra time, Santos had to answer a lot of questions about his future.
He told reporters, “I have a contract until 2024, and I plan to stick to it until the end.”
As if the recent results weren’t stressful enough, the coach also has to deal with Liverpool forward Diogo Jota’s injury and Atletico Madrid striker Joao Felix’s poor play, which has made the 120 million euro ($118.56 million) player a bench warmer this season.