Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal won the 2016 European Championship, so they’re not not likely to make a deep push in the World Cup. Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal will likely advance out of their group, alongside Spain, and they could make it even further into the knockout rounds with some luck. But Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal won’t win the whole thing. Why? Glad you asked:
Jokes aside (though Ronaldo’s and Messi’s crews could very conceivably meet in the quarterfinals...), Portugal have a few major problems. Their primary worry should be their defense, which is a total mystery. Aside from Pepe, who plays for Turkish club Beşiktaş, it’s unclear who will be filling in the backline. None of the available options are great. Bruno Alves had a miserable season at Rangers; Cédric Soares’s Southampton barely avoided relegation; José Fonte flopped at West Ham and now plays in China; Mário Rui became a starter at Napoli this past season but only because the first-stringer got injured; Borussia Dortmund’s Raphaël Guerreiro is talented but missed much of last season with injuries; Ricardo Pereira is promising but unproven at this level; and Rúben Dias is a 21-year-old who just recently made his international debut. The defense that was so solid during the Euro-winning run two years ago is in much worse condition now.
Also worth noting is that two of the heroes of Portugal’s 2016 Euro title won’t be heading to Russia with their compatriots. One Euro stud-turned-World Cup snubee is the darling Renato Sanches. Sanches was just 18 when he broke onto the scene at that tournament, but he hasn’t come close to progressing the way everyone thought he would’ve. He was signed by Bayern Munich in 2016, failed to make an impression there, was then sent on loan to Swansea City of all places where he was similarly ineffective, and he will now reportedly be loaned back to Benfica this summer. Sanches is still really young, so there’s plenty of time for him to get back on track and eventually turn into the world-beater he was predicted to be just a couple short years ago. Unfortunately for him, he won’t have the World Cup as a platform to springboard back to where he belongs.
The other hero from two years ago who missed the roster cut this time is Éder, the man who scored the extra-time goal in the 2016 Euro final. Éder has never been a particularly good player and only got a Euro call-up because the other Portuguese striker options were even worse, so it’s ultimately a good thing that he was left home this summer. Still, the absence of 2016 Euro squad members like Éder and Sanches and Nani and André Gomes means this team is much different than the one that achieved the glory of two years ago. Their replacements are probably better players, but it’s not likely to result in a better tournament.
Goalkeepers: Anthony Lopes (Lyon), Beto (Goztepe), Rui Patrício (Unsigned)
Defenders: Bruno Alves (Rangers), Cédric Soares (Southampton), José Fonte (Dalian Yifang), Mário Rui (Napoli), Pepe (Besiktas), Raphaël Guerreiro (Borussia Dortmund), Ricardo Pereira (Porto/Leicester), Rúben Dias (Benfica)
Midfielders: Adrien Silva (Leicester), Bruno Fernandes (Sporting Lisbon), João Mario (West Ham), João Moutinho (Monaco), Manuel Fernandes (Lokomotiv), William Carvalho (Sporting Lisbon)
Forwards: André Silva (AC Milan), Bernardo Silva (Manchester City), Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid), Gelson Martins (Sporting Lisbon), Gonçalo Guedes (Valencia), Ricardo Quaresma (Besiktas)
A Seleçao das Quinas (Selection of the Portugal coat of arms)
This is the big question facing Portugal at the World Cup. How will they approach their matches in light of their victory at the Euros two years ago and everything that’s changed since then?
In 2016, Portugal were the model example of a savvy international team. Which is to say, they played in the most godforsakenly boring way imaginable. The smart money on the international scene is to worry more about not giving up a goal than about scoring one yourself, which makes sense because you can still win via penalties even if you never score. And especially for teams outside the outrageously deep and talented soccer supercountries of Brazil, Spain, Germany, and France, it’s easier to win by training a group of mediocre-to-good players in the art of hard-nosed defending than by trying to pretend those mediocre-to-good guys are Zidanes or Ronaldinhos who can dance past an entire team by themselves and score.
Portugal manager Fernando Santos understood this, and set his team up to capitalize on that strategy. Portugal’s back line barely inched ahead of their penalty area and their midfield was similarly defensively minded. Portugal often started matches in a 4-4-2 formation with four box-to-box central midfielders who specialized in running their legs into the ground. For the eight players behind the speedy front two, the primary task was to prevent the goalkeeper from even needing to make a save.
Santos’s strategy in 2016 was effective, even if it still took quite a bit of luck for Portugal to get their hands on the trophy. It was also the most sensible strategy available, since the Portuguese squad wasn’t really equipped to play any other way. That’s no longer the case this year.
Besides Ronaldo, the Euro-winning Portugal squad didn’t have any other reliable attacking options. Things have changed drastically in just the two years since then. Today, Portugal’s strength is unquestionably in the attacking department. Manchester City creative wizard Bernardo Silva, powerful Valencia winger Gonçalo Guedes, Sporting’s speedy wide player Gelson Martins, and AC Milan striker André Silva are arguably Portugal’s four best non-Ronaldo players. An attack-minded Portugal team could easily run all over any defense in the world with all that speed, creativity, and finishing ability in the legs of those four young upstarts plus Ronaldo. Letting a few of those guys loose from the start would make for a wildly entertaining and, more importantly, incredibly dangerous attacking style.
Given how they played in qualifiers and recent friendlies, it looks like Santos’s Portugal is sticking to the old strategy. But if it doesn’t work out for them in the early going—if Portugal loses to Spain in their opener, for example—Santos could rip up that game plan and focus more on the attack.
Everybody already knows about Cristiano Ronaldo, about how he’s one of the greatest goalscorers to have ever lived, about how even at 33 years old and with gradually slipping athleticism and stamina he still manages put up an unbelievable number of goals and big-game performances exactly when they’re needed most.
What’s more interesting than yet another detailing of how late-career Ronaldo plays is looking at how Ronaldo thinks—specifically, how he thinks about this World Cup. Few players in any sport have navigated their careers with as intent an eye on their positioning in the game’s all-time hierarchy as Ronaldo has, and even fewer have put together as sterling a body of work as CR7. Ronaldo has scored all the goals, won all the trophies several times over, has been honored with statues and statues, and has no reason to look in envy at any other soccer player’s statistics and accolades. At 33 years old, coming off three consecutive Champions League titles and the favorite to accept a third consecutive Ballon d’Or award, Ronaldo has to realize that while the end of his career is nearing, the things he’s accomplished have made him immortal.
And yet there’s still the World Cup, the one tournament he’s yet to conquer. Ronaldo did feature prominently for a Portugal side that made an impressive run to the semifinals back in 2006, but Ronaldo wasn’t Ronaldo yet then. His next two World Cups weren’t especially notable one way or the other. This time, in what will be his last chance to leave a lasting mark on the biggest sporting event in the world while still in his prime, Ronaldo has to be salivating at the opportunity before him. We might not think Portugal have much of a chance to win the thing, but if there’s anyone who has the mentality and ability to make the impossible real, it’s Ronaldo.
All times Eastern
June 15, 2 p.m.: Portugal vs. Spain at Fisht Stadium
June 20, 8 a.m.: Portugal vs. Morocco at Luzhniki Stadium
June 25, 2 p.m.: Iran vs. Portugal at Mordovia Arena