This article is part of the Guardian’s Euro 2020 Experts’ Network, a cooperation between some of the best media organisations from the 24 countries who qualified. theguardian.com is running previews from two countries each day in the run-up to the tournament kicking off on 11 June.
Listening to Fernando Santos and his players, it is clear they believe a repeat of what happened five years ago is possible. In 2016, Portugal went all the way and won the Euros. “I will not say the same sentences I said before Euro 2016, I will not photocopy anything because a copy is not the same as the original,” says Santos. “What I can say, though, is it has been a long time since Portugal entered a major tournament just to compete in it. Portugal enter a major tournament to win it.”
Cristiano Ronaldo, still the captain and the primary force of the squad, has played in four Euros and four World Cups but remains as thirsty as ever for success. He echoed Santos when he said: “It is not because we won in 2016 that we are the favourites – other teams are the favourites – but we are going to the European Championship to try to win again.”
The team experienced a small dip at the start of Euro 2020 qualifying, with draws against Serbia and Ukraine, raising several questions about their approach, but recovered to reach the finals. An impressive 4-2 win in Belgrade against Serbia was key as they finished second to Ukraine in their group. They also won the first edition of the Nations League, beating Switzerland in the semi-finals and the Netherlands in the final.
Ronaldo was top scorer in qualifying and the questions about Santos’s tactics revolve around him. Santos prefers a 4-4-2 that can turn into a 4-2-3-1 when defending. He likes to have two defensive-minded midfielders to free up Bernardo Silva and Bruno Fernandes on the flanks. Whoever partners Ronaldo up front – Diogo Jota, André Silva or João Félix – must help out defensively on the left to allow one of the midfielders to be more central.
The core of the team that won in 2016 is still there, with Rui Patrício (33), Pepe (37) and Ronaldo (36) still involved, but there is an impressive amount of younger talent. The generation of Rúben Dias (24), Bernardo Silva (26), Fernandes (26), Jota (24), André Silva (25) and Félix (21) will be keen to make an impact this summer.
Dias and Pepe should start in central defence with José Fonte an option, while João Cancelo and Raphaël Guerreiro (if fully fit) are expected to occupy the full-back positions. Watch out, too, for the 18-year-old Nuno Mendes, who is an option at left-back. In fact, there is quality throughout the squad and, while that does not mean success is guaranteed, it does mean Portugal have a chance again.
Fernando Santos will for ever be remembered as the coach who led Portugal to success at Euro 2016 (and to a lesser extent the Nations League) but he is also known as the “Engineer of the Penta”, a nickname given to him for winning five consecutive league titles as Porto manager. Santos graduated in electronic engineering and telecommunications and worked as a hotel maintenance director between 1981 and 1998. A devout Catholic, he prays and reads biblical passages every morning. Santos also speaks fluent Greek, having been in charge of several club sides and the national team there.
Cristiano Ronaldo is getting close to 300 million followers on Instagram and, according to one study, makes €758,000 for each post on the social network. He makes ads for the biggest Portuguese brands and is admired by the majority of people in Portugal, although some are beginning to disapprove of his behaviour. One recent example came when he threw his captain’s armband to the ground after a goal was ruled out against Serbia. Some fans also feel the national team is still too focused on Ronaldo, when there are many other players capable of winning games.
Happy for a year’s delay
A year ago, Diogo Jota had played only 26 minutes for the national team. September 2020 proved to be a momentous month in his career: he started his first game for Portugal, scored his first goal and moved to Liverpool. If he has recovered fully from injury he will be the prime candidate to play alongside Ronaldo. “I looked at Diogo Jota for the first time when he was at Paços de Ferreira, he fits our team very well,” says Santos.
What the fans sing
Since 2016 it has been “Pouco Importa, Pouco Importa”, which was recorded by supporters. After many years playing beautiful football without winning titles, Fernando Santos created a team that could go all the way, although the style of play was sometimes criticised. The fans created a song for this new climate that they sing to this day: “It matters little, it matters little, whether we play well or badly, we just want to take the cup to our Portugal.”
What the fans say
“Mete o Eder!” – Put on Eder! Whenever the national team is struggling to score, fans remember the striker whose goal decided the Euro 2016 final.
“Só vou dia 11 para Portugal” – I’m only going to Portugal on the 11th. Fernando Santos famously said this before Euro 2016 and supporters promise to say the same at Euro 2020 – to only return home after the final is won.
“Passa, Ronaldo!” – Pass the ball, Ronaldo!
Bruno Fernandes. In April 2020, two team captains from the Portuguese third division created an association to help amateur players who were struggling financially. Fernandes quickly joined the initiative and even distributed food to help those most in need.
Vitor Hugo Alvarenga writes for Maisfutebol.
Follow him on Twitter @vitorhalvarenga.
For a player profile on João Cancelo click here.
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