LISBON, May 25, (RTRS): They may be over dependent on Cristiano Ronaldo and struggling to replace old faithfuls, yet under the wily leadership of Fernando Santos, Portugal can still be a threat. Semi-finalists four years ago, Portugal suffered a miserable first-round exit at the World Cup in 2014 and followed that up by losing at home to Albania in their opening qualifier for Euro 2016.
Tempestuous coach Paulo Bento, who had steadfastly refused to replace Portugal’s old guard, was sacked and replaced by Fernando Santos, who made an instant impact as Portugal reeled off seven successive wins in the Euro qualifiers, all by single-goal margins, to steer themselves safely to France. Santos has found the rebuilding process as difficult as his predecessor and has also relied heavily on more experienced players, even recalling veteran central defender Ricardo Carvalho, who will be 38 when the competition gets underway in France.
At least there has been a willingness to give the new generation a chance. More than 50 players have been called up under Santos who has given 17 their full international debuts and fielded 33 players in the qualifiers. His boldness to experiment has paid off, unveiling highly promising players such as winger Bernardo Silva and midfielders William Carvalho and Joao Mario.
Possibly the most exciting of all is 18-year-old Renato Sanches, who has just signed for Bayern Munich from Benfica months after making his professional debut. Portugal’s biggest failure is their inability to convert chances into goals with former Manchester United winger Nani, who remains a regular at international level, one of the main culprits.
In the end, however, everything still revolves around Ronaldo, who is often criticised for failing to reproduce his best form for Portugal even though he is their all-time leading scorer. Ronaldo owes most of his fame and fortune to his exploits with Real Madrid, yet he also remains a hugely influential figure when representing his country.
Portugal’s results have improved enormously since Ronaldo made his international debut against Kazakhstan as an 18-year-old in 2003. Their recent record at major tournaments is the envy of many bigger countries after they reached the Euro 2004 final, 2006 World Cup semi-finals and the Euro 2012 semi-finals, where they lost to eventual winners Spain in a shootout.
Portugal have suffered when Ronaldo, who has captained them since he was 22, has been off-form such as at the last World Cup when he suffered a bout of tendinosis in his left knee in the run-up to the competition. The Madeira-born forward, who makes a point of breaking records, is Portugal’s all-time leading scorer with 56 goals in 125 appearances and needs three more caps to beat Luis Figo’s record.
Nevertheless, the three-times world player of the year has not been above criticism, with most of his goals coming in qualifying matches against weaker opponents and many supporters wondering why he did not take a penalty in the 2012 shootout against Spain. It is, though, hard to imagine Portugal without him and Ronaldo himself says he wants to play for his country until at least the 2018 World Cup and maybe beyond. “I don’t make plans in my sporting life,” he said in February. “If I feel good in three years’ time, we will see what happens.”