Unpopular Portugal put substance before style

Cristiano Ronaldo has found new ways to influence the Seleção despite his poor form

6 July ~ Portugal are already champions of sorts: they seem to be the most reviled team of Euro 2016, for whatever reason – and there are a number to choose from, including Cristiano Ronaldo’s narcissism, Pepe’s borderline psychopathy and the perceived injustice of the team’s dogged progress, which has come despite the generally poor quality of their play.

Apart from the odd flash of their undeniable potential, Portugal haven’t shown any consistent class and have managed to reach the semi-finals on the back of five 90-minute draws. Asked whether it would really be possible to win the whole thing by drawing all their games, coach Fernando Santos didn’t miss a beat: “Where do I sign?”

There’s pressure from some pundits and columnists at home for the team to turn it on a bit, but there’s another school of thought that remembers and dismisses the many moral victories of the past that never won the Seleção any trophies: this will be the seventh semi-final of a major tournament, with only one final appearance to show for it (12 years ago this week at Euro 2004 in Portugal, 1-0 to Greece). Santos again: “Playing footy and playing football are not the same thing.” It’s clear that he’ll be content to grind out two more results – shades of his four years coaching Greece from 2010.

This is not to say that the team has been totally devoid of excellence. Pepe, for example, has managed to control his excesses and put in some outstanding performances, notably in the last two games against Croatia and Poland. A thigh strain may rule him out tonight, which would be a terrible blow, such is his influence at the back.

Then there’s the confident arrival on the full international scene of midfielder Renato Sanches with his strength, hunger for the ball and direct, forward-looking approach. The only doubt is whether the conservative Santos has complete faith in him, or will prefer an under-par but more experienced João Moutinho against Wales.  

But notwithstanding the 3-3 draw with Hungary (two goals and an assist), Ronaldo has been off his game. This has coincided, though, with something of a transformation in his bearing as captain. There was the incident with the TV mic that he threw into a lake in a huff, but that seemed to be a turning point. Since then he’s been an inspiring, focused leader on and off the field.

A pitch-side camera caught him convincing Moutinho to take a penalty against Poland, geeing him up with a neat bit of reverse psychology: “If we lose, fuck it!” Another camera followed him as the shootout unfolded, urgently stalking the line of his players like a hyperactive sergeant major. Significantly, he opted to take his penalty first to get one chalked up early (the opposite of what he did against Spain in the semi-final four years ago, when he held back for the glory of the final penalty, which never happened as Spain ran out 4-2 winners).

After the game, Ronaldo patiently fielded for the umpteenth time a question about his form: “My performance isn’t important. What counts is the team, and we did a great job.” The following day, the squad left the Marcoussis training camp to mingle with the crowds of local Franco-Portuguese besieging it. Ronaldo gave a short but quite stirring speech, keeping hold of the mic this time: “We’ve come out to thank you for all the support you’ve given us. We haven’t won anything yet, but we’re going to try to do our best in the semi-final and the final. Keep up the support, which we really appreciate. We’re very proud.”

Those fans were some of the 11 million from the Portuguese football federation’s tournament slogan “Not 11 but 11 million”, and they should be in the majority in the Stade de Lyon. But Wales will go into tonight’s semi-final with the rest of the world behind them (everyone loves a plucky underdog). Portugal may only regain some of their popularity internationally if they can get into the final – where they’ll be underdogs themselves once again, whether they meet France or Germany – and win (or lose) it in style. Phil Town