Seleção overcame mind-games against Sweden
22 November ~ It was Portugal's third consecutive play-off, after the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012, both against Bosnia. Before the latest one, everybody in Portugal agreed that on paper the team were better than Sweden. But then they were also "better" than Russia, who won Group F, and Israel, who managed two draws against the Seleção. "It would be ridiculous if a team that's so full of talent and has the best player in the world didn't manage to qualify," FC Porto president Jorge Nuno Pinto da Costa said after the second of those draws.
The sports press effectively distilled the play-off games into a single question: Who would decide the contest – Cristiano Ronaldo or Zlatan Ibrahimovic? A Bola's front page on the day of the first game in Lisbon had caricatures of the players as Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in a light-sabre duel, with an obvious headline: Star Wars.
For the Luz leg, a hypermarket chain, Continente, was the sole channel for tickets at €10, €15 and €20. Not surprisingly, it was a sell-out, 60,000-odd forming a huge Portuguese flag at the playing of the anthem. It was a game in which Sepp Blatter's "other one" scored a beautifully taken goal that would prove to be vital. He also cemented his "Eu estou aqui!" (I'm here!) goal celebration and his Blatter-inspired nickname of "Commander". On the other hand, the game marked a hopefully short-lived novelty: a mini brass band calling themselves O Menino é Lindo (The Boy's Beautiful), strategically set up to annoy those on the Swedish bench but irritating more than a few innocent bystanders at the same time.
As revenge, the Portugal squad were welcomed to their Stockholm hotel ahead of the second leg by a Swedish band playing a version of the Pippi Longstocking theme, aimed at Ronaldo. Sneaky measures were called for to stop the Portuguese captain. Local newspaper Aftonbladet asked readers to suggest ways to destabilise him. "Turn off the heating in the hotel" was one. "Invite Sepp Blatter to the game" was another. And "open the roof to muck up his hair-do". The Swedish FA actually tried the last idea, delaying their decision over whether to open or close the roof of the Friends Arena. Their Portuguese counterparts pre-empted the ruse, asking to have it open.
The Swedish branch of Pepsi misguidedly took part in the mind games, too, with a campaign involving effigies of Ronaldo. In one of the ads, the effigy was gagged and bound on a railway track with the legend: "Let's run over Portugal". There was a Facebook petition to boycott Pepsi products, organised by disgusted Portugal fans.
The company later apologised, but not before Portuguese humourist Nilton had badgered a Pepsi representative into saying "Ronaldo is the best". After his performance in that second leg, few in Portugal doubted it. A Bola gave him an extremely rare ten out of ten for the second time in a matter of weeks – he got the same after the 4-2 win in Northern Ireland in September. The other sports dailies Record and O Jogo gave him maximum marks, too.
One negative note came from Carlos Queiroz, the third Portuguese coach going to Brazil, with Iran – the other one is Greece's Fernando Santos. In 2010, Portugal went out of the World Cup with a whimper at the hands of Spain. Questioned at the time about what had happened, Ronaldo pointed a finger: "Ask Carlos Queiroz!" The former Seleção coach picked this moment to respond: "Congratulations, Ronaldo! If you'd shouldered your responsibilities against Spain, like you did in this play-off, we would have gone through."
Others were cautious about the future. O Jogo's editor José Manuel Ribeiro highlighted João Moutinho and Hugo Almeida's superb assists for Cristiano Ronaldo's hat-trick and praised the team's supporting role. This was, he suggested, an advantage in the play-off but may be a handicap in Brazil. "Portugal didn't merely need the best in the world – they needed the best from the best. It's not a good idea to ask for so much."
For the moment, though, the Portuguese have a glorious, cathartic night in Stockholm to keep them warm inside through the winter months. The economic austerity being forced on them won't disappear overnight, but it may be slightly assuaged. IPAM, the Portuguese Institute of Marketing Management, has calculated that qualification will mean the generation of over €430 million for the economy, over €600m if Portugal go all the way. Phil Town