With an estimated population of 10.5m, Portugal’s stature as a footballing nation has outstretched expectations based on its size and development pool. Their success has been largely built on the development of youth talent, with the ‘big three’ club sides of Benfica, Sporting Lisbon and Porto producing the bulk of the national team’s players. These powerhouses have dominated the domestic league, so much so that only four other teams have ever won the league since its inception in 1935. In fact, in 75 years only 10 times have these smaller clubs lifted the title. However, rather than suffocating the progression of the national team, the dominance of the ‘big three’ has led to better player development and the establishment of their now world-renowned academies.
The tradition of developing talent is set to continue as the Portuguese Federation received just over £250 000 in 2008 as part of the FIFA Goal Project. The money has allowed the Federation to design and build its own technical centre in Sintra and 30% of the budget has been allocated to youth football. Youth development is key to the ongoing stability of Portuguese football, with smaller clubs relying on the money from selling to the ‘big three’, who in turn regularly sell to other European clubs. This selling culture means that the Coach Carlos Queiroz will have to mostly call upon players based outside Portugal when naming his World Cup squad.
Although currently ranked third in the world, Portugal struggled through qualification – only reaching the World Cup via the play-offs. After a resounding 4-0 win against Malta to kick off their qualification campaign, Portugal stumbled, losing 3-2 to Denmark before going on to draw their next three games 0-0. A dramatic late winner gave them a 2-1 win over Albania to put them back on track and wins against Hungary (twice) and Malta as well as a draw with Denmark were enough to reach the play-offs where they narrowly won both legs against Bosnia-Herzegovina. Having started poorly, Portugal pieced together an impressive run of results and are looking to take this momentum into this summer’s tournament.
Having played qualifiers in both Porto and Lisbon, they will be used to the coastal conditions presented by their group games on South Africa’s south coast. Historically, Portugal’s best tournament finishes have come when led by one star player. Their previous best World Cup finish came in 1966 when Eusebio top scored on the way to third place and similarly, Cristiano Ronaldo shone as Portugal finished runners-up in Euro 2004. Having been drawn in the ‘Group of Death’, Portugal face a tough task just to reach the knockout rounds, but could feasibly replicate their impressive run to the semi-finals in 2006.
Leading them will be Carlos Queiroz, currently in his second spell as Portugal Coach. He guided the Portugal Under-20 side to the FIFA Youth Championships final in 1990 and the following season he stepped up to manage the full Portuguese national side. Although Portugal failed to qualify for either Euro 92 in Sweden or World Cup USA 94 under his tenure, he is credited with developing Portugal’s “golden generation.” Some of Portugal’s most illustrious and most capped players came through the ranks under Queiroz with names such as Luis Figo, Rui Costa, Vitor Baia and Jo