On paper, Portugal has more than enough talent to easily dispatch its Group F opponents.
However, as the saying goes, and as Portugal’s embittered supporters have long experienced, games are not played on paper.
There is no starker reminder of this than Angelos Charisteas’ final-winning header in Euro 2004. Greece’s only corner of the game resulted in the country’s only shot on target, which broke Portuguese hearts, and rendered me an emotional vegetable for the next few months. Just writing this paragraph has conjured up memories I’ve long suppressed along with those of Sporting’s UEFA Cup final home loss to CSKA Moscow just a year later.
Still, that loss to Greece (the second in the same tournament) is somewhat of an anomaly. Portugal has actually fared incredibly well in European Championships since 1996, always reaching the knock-out stages, and usually getting ousted by a perceived superior opponent.
One could make the case that the Czech Republic was not in fact superior to Portugal’s young Golden Generation in 1996. Nevertheless, Karel Poborsky’s nifty chip over a hapless Vitor Baia did propel the infant nation into the tournament’s final, where only a fortunate Oliver Bierhoff sudden-death goal sealed its fate as the unlikely runner-up.
Portugal also has a history of battling out of the group stages against some European giants. In Euro 2000 (arguably Portugal’s finest tournament along with the 2006 World Cup) the Portuguese topped a group that included Germany and England.
In 2004, the Portuguese spearheaded their group once again, leaving Spain by the wayside, and then defeating England and the Netherlands on its way to that fateful final in Lisbon.
While Euro 2008 pitted the Portuguese against less fearful opponents, Euro 2012 drew the nation into the infamous Group of Death alongside Germany and the Netherlands. Although doomed by the soccer punditry, Portugal managed to qualify to the knock-out stages, losing only to Spain and an inspired Iker Casillas in the semifinals.
So what does this all mean for next summer’s tournament? Well, not much, really.
Previous tournament successes don’t translate into future accomplishments.
However, they do inspire some confidence, and if you’re Portuguese, or know someone who is, you’ll know that pessimism and cynicism course through our veins.
Hence Fernando Santos’ measured response to being grouped with Iceland, Austria and Hungary. The chain-smoking coach could have been forgiven for sighing in relief. After all, none of Portugal’s three opponents send shivers down one’s spine, but the Portuguese chose only to voice the guarded utterance: “I don’t believe in easy groups or difficult groups; what I believe is in work.”
That’s not to say that Santos was being dishonest. The Portuguese, who guided Greece out of a very difficult World Cup group in Brazil, is renowned for his attention to detail. But you would be fooling yourself to think that he doesn’t have his eyes set on the knock-out stages, especially with Cristiano Ronaldo leading the way, only three goals short of equaling Michel Platini’s European Championship goal-scoring record.
Though, if there is one caveat to Portugal’s favorable Euro 2016 draw, it’s the fact that the Portuguese often struggle against well-organized teams that sit back and look to counterattack. Austria will probably not take this approach with the likes of David Alaba, Marko Arnautovic and Marc Janko on the squad, but Iceland and Hungary are built to punish teams with fast, transitional attacks – just ask the Netherlands and Norway.
All things considered, even the most pessimistic Portuguese have cause for optimism.
Portugal may not cruise to the top of the group, but expect Ronaldo and co. to be duking it out in the knock-out stages.
Follow Eric on Twitter @bigosccerheadny
Have your say on Bigsoccerhead