England is not the only team going into Euro 2012 with the advantage of low expectations: consider Portugal. Eight years ago, the Selecção came within a whisker of winning the tournament on home soil. The Portuguese, led by the so-called “Golden Generation”of Luis Figo, Rui Costa, Fernando Couto and Pauletta were shocked 1-0 in the final by underdogs Greece. A 19-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo could only watch in frustration, his two goals in the tournament merely hinting at his great potential.
In the intervening years, other world-class players like Deco have come and gone, never matching the 2004 achievement, their best ever. Going into Euro 2012, the team carries relatively light hopes. There are great players in the squad, including Real Madrid’s mighty defender Pepe and Manchester United’s skillful midfielder Nani. But a Golden Generation, this is not. Heck, they only qualified for Ukraine/Poland by the skin of their teeth, requiring a play-off against Bosnia & Herzegovina.
Portugal does have one diamond, though: Ronaldo, now in his pomp at Real Madrid, is far and away Europe’s best player. Only a certain diminutive Argentinian at Barcelona prevents him from being hailed the best in the world. His goals were crucial to Portugal qualifying for Euro 2012, and the team’s fortunes rest mostly on his powerful shoulders.
On paper, Portugal should have no chance of making it out of Group B: they face two of the tournament favorites in Germany and the Netherlands, plus an unpredictable Denmark (all four sides are in FIFA’s top 10 rankings, hence Group B’s tag as the Group of Death). And their build-up form has not been flattering. Two scoreless friendlies, against Poland and Macedonia, were followed by a 3-1 spanking at home by Turkey. (Portugal faces Germany in their opening game, this Saturday.)
But while Portugal has Ronaldo, anything is possible. CR7, as his fans know him, is one of soccer’s great game-changers, capable of turning a match with a single burst of speed or a swerving free-kick. His form has been electric: 46 goals in 38 games helped Madrid finally overtake Lionel Messi’s Barcelona as champions of Spain. (Only Messi out-scored him in European competition.) Ronaldo’s game has matured, too. Long accused of selfishness, he has become much more of a team player at Madrid, teeing up goals for the likes of Karim Benzema and Gonzalo Higuain.
If Ronaldo can keep up his 2011-12 ratio of goals per game, as well as set up opportunities for his national teammates, he will more than compensate for Portugal’s traditional weakness in scoring.
Can one man take his team to the top by the strength of his genius alone? It’s been known to happen. In 1986, Diego Maradona led a mostly mediocre Argentinian squad to glory at the World Cup; four years later, he took an even weaker team all the way to the final.
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Even CR7, who has an ego to match his right foot, may demure from comparisons with Maradona, but he has said that Portugal “has the potential to win something important.” And his motivation is high: a major trophy with his national team would give him something that has thus far eluded that diminutive Argentinian.