By Eric Krakauer @bigsoccerheadny
“We are not playing against tradition. We are playing against France.”
In keeping with his style, that was how Fernando Santos succinctly addressed the issue of Portugal’s record against France.
History weighs heavy
It’s a torrid one. Make no mistakes about it. Thus, that the Portuguese keep referencing the wretched tradition is not at all a surprise.
Portugal has not defeated France since 1975, and relatively recent semifinals history has essentially branded Les Bleus as the Seleção’s bogymen.
There’s the 1984 semifinal in Marseille that helped turn Michel Platini into a national hero after he scored the winning goal, late in extra-time. There’s the infamous Abel Xavier hand ball at Euro 2000 that enabled Zinedine Zidane to oust arguably Portugal’s best ever team with a spot-kick. And of course, it was Zidane’s penalty once again that vanquished the Portuguese after Ricardo Carvalho clumsily brought down Thierry Henry in the box in the 2006 World Cup.
Whether or not Santos believes his own assertion is something we will never know. But the reality is that despite claims to the contrary, players do play against tradition. They are as aware of it as we are, and that certainly influences what happens on the pitch.
However, footballing tradition does not have to determine results, no matter how psychologically heavy it may be. Euro 2016 has been a testament to that. Until this tournament’s quarterfinals, the Germans had never been able to triumph over the Italians in a major competition. Additionally, the French only guaranteed their presence in the final after overcoming a hoodoo that had lasted since 1958.
That a specific tradition persists in the game can speak to a team’s fragility, and the Portuguese have long been regarded as lacking mental fortitude. This reputation is so prevalently perceived that soccer pundits are quick to dismiss Portugal as a true title contender in spite of being the national team with the most tournament semifinal appearances since 2000.
A winning mentality
However, Euro 2016 has done much to help dispel the deprecating reputation. While Portugal fortuitously landed on the more favorable side of the tournament bracket, their knockout stage opponents were always favored. This was especially the case with Croatia. Having defeated the reigning champions, Spain, and topped their group, the consensus was that Modric and co. would dispatch the Portuguese relatively easily.
Of course, that was not to pass. Instead, we witnessed a defensively resolute Portugal that all but nullified Croatia’s threat, and it was the first sign that Santos’ priority was to neutralize the opponent rather than impose his own game. Effective, but not pretty, the strategy gave rise to the narrative that the Portuguese were perfectly satisfied winning ugly. And its recurrence against Poland and Wales only reinforced it.
If aesthetics had anything to do with results, the criticism might have affected Santos and his players.
However, the truth is that Portugal has found a winning formula that has engendered the belief that lifting the Henri Delaunay trophy is possible, and fostered a Machiavellian-like attitude towards winning.
This new attitude is absolutely vital to overcoming the mental hurdle that Portugal’s losing record to France has become, and is much more important than playing an attractive brand of football. The French may seem like overwhelming opponents, but the Portuguese can now point to a tried and tested pragmatic approach that has already helped them navigate turbulent waters and has propelled them all the way to the final.
We are a long way from the Portugal that prided itself on the fluidity of its football, and much closer to the kinds of teams that actually go on to win major tournaments. Look back at past winners and you will seldom find nations that dazzled on the field of play (think Netherlands in 1978, Brazil in 1982, and even Portugal in 2000). Those are a rarity. Rather, you will find teams that followed a winning blueprint – teams that learned how to win.
We know we will not witness an arresting Portugal against France. The onus is squarely on the French, and Santos will want to frustrate them into making mistakes and slowly buckle under the pressure of playing in front of a home crowd that demands a win.
If the plan fails, the Portuguese will be vilified for their tactics. If they win, no one will remember how they played, only that they were finally able to win a major tournament, with the added bonus of having put an end to a losing tradition.