Portugal’s World Cup hopes rest on Ronaldo

Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo in action. (Armando Franca/AP).

These days it’s easy to think of Portugal as a perennial World Cup team, as one of world soccer’s tenured elite. They have Cristiano Ronaldo, of course, and way back when they had Eusebio. Glory present and past, right? Well, not so much. Coming onto the 20th World Cup, Portugal has only qualified six times. It took 36 years for the Seleção to reach its first tournament and another 20 after that to reach its second. But, still, these days, it’s hard to think of Portugal as anything but a consistent presence. Qualified now for their fourth tournament in a row, they’re looking to improve on a run of two straight trips to the knockout round. If Ronaldo stays at the height of his powers, don’t rule anything out. If he falters…


Goalkeepers: Beto (Sevilla), Eduardo (Braga), Rui Patrício (Sporting)
Defenders: Andre Almeida (Benfica), Bruno Alves (Fenerbahce), Fabio Coentrao (Real Madrid), Joao Pereira (Valencia), Neto (Zenit St Petersburg), Pepe (Real Madrid), Ricardo Costa (Valencia)
Midfielders: Joao Moutinho (Monaco), Miguel Veloso (Dynamo Kiev), Raul Meireles (Fenerbahce), Ruben Amorim (Benfica), William Carvalho (Sporting Lisbon), Rafa (Braga)
Forwards: Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid), Eder (Braga), Helder Postiga (Lazio), Hugo Almeida (Besiktas), Nani (Manchester United), Varela (FC Porto), Vieirinha (Wolfsburg)


Getting Portugal to the semifinals of Euro 2012 and landing a spot in Brazil has secured Paulo Bento’s reputation as one of the hottest young coaches in world soccer. His teams may not be exciting, but he’s managed to get Ronaldo’s club form on display for Portugal, which is enough to carry a team far

Possible formation

4-3-3: (GK) Patricio – (D) Pereira, Pepe, Alves, Coentrao – (M) Meireles, Moutinho, Veloso – (F) Nani, Postiga, Ronaldo

Group G schedule

June 16: vs. Germany in Salvador
June 22: vs. United States in Manaus
June 26: vs. Ghana in Brasilia

How they qualified

Portugal struggled more than their group draw would have suggested. The apparent favourites, they spent much of the group stage in second or even third place, trailing Russia and Israel through a perpetually stalled campaign. The core of that struggle was a run from matchday three to matchday six: of nine possible points, Portugal collected just two. In the end, the Portuguese managed to collect themselves in the nick of time, to scrape across the line and survive a deadly looking playoff against Sweden thanks to Ronaldo’s four-goal master class.

Team strengths

Rising to the occasion. Consider the playoff against Sweden: Faced with the threat of missing out on Brazil, Portugal stepped up and won the first leg at home. Faced with an Ibrahimovic-inspired comeback in Stockholm, they stepped up and secured the win. In Euro 2012, they beat World Cup–runners up the Netherlands in the group stage, and only lost to eventual winner Spain on penalties in the semifinals. This is a big-stage team, led by the biggest big-stage club player of them all, Cristiano Ronaldo.

Team weaknesses

The flip side: Portugal has a nasty tendency to play down to lesser opponents—during qualifying they drew Northern Ireland and Israel (twice) and drew Gabon in a friendly. Lucky for them the U.S. and Germany are hardly “lesser opponents,” but dropping points against Group G’s relative weak link, Ghana, could spell disaster for Portugal.

Players to watch

Cristiano Ronaldo: The world will be watching the FIFA Balon d’Or winner closely. His free kicks are legendary and his ability to score is unstoppable. The only question is whether he’ll finally step up at the World Cup, and if he’ll be fully fit following an injury-plagued season.
Joao Moutinho: The man most responsible for setting the table for Ronaldo, he’s got a dead eye for through balls that unlock defences.
Pepe: Unless you’re a Portugal fan or a Real Madrid fan, you probably hate Pepe. But for all his dirty tackles and willingness to fall down, he’s a key defender who’ll do whatever it takes to win.

Burning question?

Can Ronaldo carry Portugal deep? It may be unfair to call Portugal a one-man team, but it’s not unfair to say that as Ronaldo goes, so will go Portugal this summer. Where he was once a slight disappointment on the world stage—he scored just once in South Africa, in a gimme romp against North Korea—it seems Bento has found a way to get the best out of the best player on Earth. But this is the World Cup, and a one-man show won’t cut it.

Prospects in Brazil

Provided he’s healthy, Ronaldo will lead Portugal out of the group, but no further. Portugal has the attacking threat to ruin Ghana and probably get the better of an inexperienced U.S. back line, but the bigger better squads in the second round (likely Belgium, lead from the back by Vincent Kompany) will isolate Ronaldo and starve Portugal of their meal-ticket.

World Cup history

Believe it or not this will be just Portugal’s sixth World Cup appearance. For most of the tournament’s history, Portugal was nowhere to be found. Then came 1966 and the legendary Eusebio, who propelled Portugal to third place. After that, though, the Portuguese didn’t return to the World Cup until 1986.

• 1930—Did not enter
• 1934 to 1962—Did not qualify
• 1966—Semifinals (third place)
• 1970 to 1982—Did not qualify
• 1986—First round
• 1990 to 1998—Did not qualify
• 2002—First round
• 2006—Semifinals (fourth place)
• 2010—Second round

Algeria || Argentina || Australia || Belgium || Bosnia and Herzegovina || Brazil || Cameroon || Chile || Colombia || Costa Rica || Croatia || Ecuador || England || France || Germany || Ghana || Greece || Holland || Honduras || Iran || Italy || Ivory Coast || Japan || Mexico || Nigeria || Portugal || Russia || South Korea || Spain || Switzerland || Uruguay || United States

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