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Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

The fascinating history behind Portugal’s Euro 2016 victory

From Antnio Salazar's dictatorial rule through generations of footballing talent plagued by bad luck to their first ever major trophy

The story of football in Portugal has always had a moribund quality to it. In spite of the several dazzling stars that the country has both produced and imported, a sense of ennui always seems to pervade, if not its style of football, its larger sporting ethos.

It’s still a matter of some surprise, though, that until the recently concluded European championship in France, Portugal had never won a major trophy in the sport. It had suffered unmemorable defeats, many of them heart-breaking, and had even cobbled together a golden generation of players for whom victory seemed certain, until they met the nation’s hitherto destructive streak of bad luck.

It is therefore difficult, as journalist Simon Kuper recently observed, to begrudge the country its triumph at the Euros this year, despite its newfangled obeisance to a form of football that is plainly reactive and defensive, and completely lacking in all attacking vitality.

“Would I like us to be pretty? Yes," said Portugal’s coach Fernando Santos, after his team had plodded their way through 90 minutes of normal time and a further half-hour of extra time before ousting Poland in the quarterfinal in a penalty shoot out. “But in between being pretty and being at home, or ugly and being here, I prefer to be ugly."

Football purists might view Santos’s statement as an affront to the game’s finest values. But viewed in the context of Portugal’s unique footballing history, and indeed its chequered path in qualifying for the tournament in France, Santos can hardly be faulted for being pragmatic, for discovering a tactic that constituted his team’s best chance at success, unbothered by elements of both style and beauty.

In many ways, the tale of Portugal’s growth as a footballing power, as David Goldblatt describes in his book, The Ball is Round: A Global History of Soccer, commenced under António Salazar’s tyrannical dictatorship as Portugal’s prime minister from 1932 until his death in 1968.

Salazar’s rule was built on what is often described as the three F’s—“Fado, Fátima and Football"—which together constituted an “ideological troika" of sorts. Of these three, it is perhaps only football that continues to remain truly at the core of the country’s passion, even if both Fado and Fátima, much like the sport, have also been refashioned to represent what is today a far happier nation.

Salazar’s diktats were enforced through a secretly maintained police that quelled any and every form of dissent and opposition, with a view to ultimately entrenching in Portugal’s philosophy a deeply conservative social and economic structure. As Goldblatt points out, Salazar even saw the creation of a literate state as a threat to his authoritarian rule.

“I consider more urgent the creation of elites," he once said, “than the necessity to teach people how to read." To this end, his government enforced enormous cuts in budgets for primary education.

Coupled with this ingraining of illiteracy was a move to instil in Portugal’s citizens a commitment to Catholicism through the propagation of the cult of the Fátima, which, Goldblatt writes, “began in 1917 when three rural Portuguese schoolchildren claimed to have encountered the Virgin Mary" in the town of Fátima, located just north of Lisbon.

What’s more, any need for entertainment—given that the state was completely sequestered from all external, liberal influences of arts and culture—was met by Fado, a form of melancholy folk music that aims at filling the air with a sense of gloomy nostalgia akin to an acquiescence of oppression.

Football, too, for Salazar, played a strangely repressive role, in that he saw it as a means to keep his citizens stupefied.

Even before his reign, the sport had developed a following substantial enough to support a national league. But, as Goldblatt writes, for Salazar, football was “primarily a potent domestic social sedative rather than an inspirational beacon of national strength".

In his earliest years as a dictator, Salazar wasn’t as interested in investing in football, in allowing a professional approach to the sport, as he was in merely tolerating its existence.

As a result, Portugal paled in comparison to its Western European partners. It was regularly trounced by neighbouring Spain, and it failed to qualify for each of the first four World Cups that followed the end of the Second World War.

Eventually, it was despite Salazar, and through the very developments that ultimately saw the crumbling of the Salazarian state, that Portugal’s rise as a footballing nation came to fruition.

By 1960, mostly through returning migrants, the Portuguese had finally got wind of the cultural, industrial, and economical development that had caught the imagination of the rest of Europe. Slowly, Portugal’s economy came to be integrated with the continent, and with the erstwhile Portuguese colonies of North Africa, providing the basis on which the country’s football would thrive.

Predictably, at the core of Portugal’s footballing ascent was Benfica, the country’s biggest and most popular club. Its president, Maurício Vieira de Brito, a member of a powerful coffee-planter family, had used the funds that the club was able to generate through growing gate receipts to poach the visionary Hungarian coach Béla Guttmann, who brought to Benfica’s game—and therefore to Portugal—a tactical refinement that the country had until now never seen.

Guttmann set his team up in a 4-2-4 formation that he had earlier used to devastating effect with Hungary, a country that had been blessed with the talents of Nándor Hidegkuti, Ferenc Puskás, József Bozsik and Sándor Kocsis.

At Benfica, given the country’s more recent integration with Africa, Guttmann could tap into new resources that allowed him to bring to the club a spate of talent from Mozambique and Angola, among other countries. But it was the discovery in the slums of Mozambique of a player who would ultimately become one of the finest footballers of the world that really placed Portugal in motion.

“He set foot on the field running as only someone with the police or poverty nipping at his heels can run," the great Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano would later write about Eusébio da Silva Ferreira. “That’s how he became champion of Europe at the age of twenty, sprinting in zig zags. They called him ‘The Panther’."

Eusébio da Silva Ferreira. Photo: AFP
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Eusébio da Silva Ferreira. Photo: AFP

In many ways, Eusébio represented the best qualities of a present-day forward. He was strong, agile and quick, and was capable of scoring all manners of goals, with both feet and off his head, from all kinds of acute angles, and from both inside and outside the penalty box.

In the 1962 European Cup Final, Eusébio scored a brace of goals to help Benfica overcome a 2-3 deficit at half-time against the mighty Real Madrid of Alfredo Di Stéfano and Puskás. But Portugal was unable to replicate Benfica’s success at the international level, in spite of Eusébio’s sparkling brilliance.

The acme of their efforts possibly came in the 1966 World Cup staged in England when they lost narrowly to the hosts in the semifinals. It was a tournament in which Eusébio had showcased at the global stage his seemingly infinite talents, but it also presaged a story of recurring despair for his country.

In the years that followed, with Eusébio’s powers on the wane, Portugal’s footballing rise came to a rapid halt. The nation was not helped by Salazar’s bizarre rules that prohibited, on the one hand, Portuguese players from playing abroad and, on the other hand, Portuguese clubs from signing foreign players.

Eusébio himself was a victim of these commands. “Juventus came for me when I was 19," he would later tell the journalist Gabriele Marcotti. “After the World Cup, in 1966, Inter made a big offer, one which would have made me the highest-paid player in the world. And yet I was not allowed to move. Why? Salazar was not my father and he certainly was not my mother. What gave him the right? The truth was that he was my slave master, just as he was the slave master of the entire country."

Marcello Caetano assumed the dictatorship on Salazar’s death in 1968, but the “Carnation Revolution" that followed just six years later would topple altogether the one-party totalitarian Estado Novo (new state) that Salazar created.

Salazar’s regime, however, had left Portugal in shambles; it had become, by all accounts, the poorest state in Western Europe.

In the decades that followed, under newer, more democratic regimes, Portugal’s football initially floundered. But the foundations that were laid in the immediate aftermath of the Estado Novo’s ejection would eventually help football grow.

In 1978, the Liga Portuguesa de Futebol Profissional (LPFP) was established as a separate governing body for the sport, which allowed clubs in Portugal to function as proper, professional entities. This in turn helped herald a culture in which clubs increasingly pumped greater funds into better infrastructure, more refined coaching techniques and, most significantly, youth academies.

The investments would pay off in just under a decade, when Portugal produced a golden generation of footballers, comprising players of the calibre of the future Ballon d’Or winner Luis Figo and the nimble-footed creative midfielder Manuel Rui Costa.

Luis Figo. Photo: AFP
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Luis Figo. Photo: AFP

This group won the Under-16 European championship in 1989, finished runners-up in the Under-18 world championship in 1990, and was ultimately crowned Under-20 world champions in 1991.

But as talented as the golden generation was, Portugal was still unable to find success at the senior level.

At the European Championship in 2000, the team after dazzling its way through the early stages of the competition was ousted by France late into extra time of its semifinal match, after Zinedine Zidane converted a penalty.

At the World Cup in 2002, Portugal succumbed in the group stages, following a 0-1 loss to co-hosts South Korea in a match that was noted for the atrocious quality of its refereeing.

But two years later, at the Euros, Portugal would get their finest chance. Not only was the tournament being staged at home, but also an even newer generation of stars that included the Brazilian-born playmaker Deco, and, most notably, a gangly teenaged superstar in the making, Cristiano Ronaldo, added weight to the country’s pre-existing golden generation.

Crisitiano Ronaldo (left) during the Euro 2004 final between Portugal and Greece. Photo: AFP
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Crisitiano Ronaldo (left) during the Euro 2004 final between Portugal and Greece. Photo: AFP

Yet, it wasn’t to be for Portugal. After toppling England and The Netherlands in the quarterfinal and the semifinal, respectively, Portugal shockingly fell to relative minnows Greece in the final.

In the decade since this loss, although Portuguese players have enjoyed significant success at a personal level, the country’s fortunes have scarcely improved.

Ronaldo has fashioned himself into an all-time great, lifting the Fifa Ballon d’Or, the award given to the world’s best player, as chosen by media representatives and national team coaches and captains, on three separate occasions. But every time he donned the red of Portugal, although he was often inspirational, the team, it seemed, was doomed for failure.

At the playoffs to qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Portugal thrillingly defeated Sweden courtesy a brilliant second leg hat-trick from Ronaldo. But at the tournament’s finals Portugal failed to as much make it out of the group stages, drawing with the US after being handsomely defeated by the ultimate champions, Germany—a team whose cohesive efficiency Portugal could only dream to emulate.

Ronaldo’s time, like Figo’s and Eusébio’s before him, appeared to be fast running out. In the qualifying rounds to this year’s Euros, Portugal commenced poorly, losing its opening match to Albania.

Fernando Santos was brought in to replace Paulo Bento as coach, and he immediately set about changing Portugal’s pattern of play. Ronaldo would operate as a centre forward, with little defensive responsibility, but the other nine outfield players were each required to get behind the ball every time possession was lost.

The team’s attacking strategy was built on swift, carefully designed counter-attacks that were aimed at getting the ball to Ronaldo at every conceivable opportunity.

Through the rest of the qualifying phase, Portugal built on this defensive edifice; their ball-movement was often ponderous, but yet they found a way to success, winning not a single game with a margin of more than one goal, only narrowly qualifying for the tournament.

In France, too, Portugal adopted the same methods. Ronaldo’s genius saw them past Hungary in the final match of the group stage, which allowed them a path to the knockouts where luck—for once—would be on their side.

Croatia was defeated in the round of 16 through a late goal in extra time, and Poland in the quarterfinal courtesy a penalty shoot-out.

Even against Wales in the semifinal, a match in which Ronaldo scored a most majestic header, Portugal relied on defensive excellence, compressing the field with at least nine men behind the ball, organized in straight banks that made it difficult for the opposition to break through.

Thus, Portugal had arrived in the final having won just two games in regulation time.

Santos, though, was hardly going to go back on his by-now trusted methods, in the match against France. When Ronaldo was withdrawn midway through the first half after a challenge from Dimitri Payet left him clutching his knee, Portugal began to withdraw further and further into a shell.

They waited until five minutes into the second half of extra time to strike. Substitute Éder, who had spent the whole of the last season—first at Swansea and later on loan at Lille—without scoring a single goal, brushed aside France’s centre-backs before pummelling a shot into the back of the net. “We were as simple as doves," Santos said after the match, “and wise as serpents."

Ronaldo may not have been on the pitch when Portugal ultimately won the title. But it was his contribution in the lead-up to the final that proved vital. In many ways, he had achieved what Eusébio and Figo before him couldn’t. He had galvanized a group of players into performing above their strengths, into playing as a team.

Ronaldo may well have craved to be on the pitch when the title was finally won, but, for once, it was only Portugal’s football that evoked pathos; the team’s victory was joyous, representing rich reward for the years of ill luck that the country had suffered. The ghosts of the Salazarian state may now have been well and truly buried.

Suhrith Parthasarathy is a lawyer and writer based in Chennai. His writings are collated at suhrith.net.

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