Perennial underachievers

Players such as Eusebio, Luis Figo, Pauleta and, more recently, Cristiano Ronaldo have inspired their club sides to many successes in Europe. But as a national team, Portugal has failed to inspire, qualifying only four times (till 2010) for the World Cup Finals. A third-place in 1966 was its best finish.

If a country’s footballing stature were to be judged only by its individual talents, Portugal would come second to none.

Players such as Eusebio, Luis Figo, Pauleta and, more recently, Cristiano Ronaldo have inspired their club sides to many successes in Europe. But as a national team, Portugal has failed to inspire, qualifying only four times (till 2010) for the World Cup. A third-place in 1966 was its best finish.

A certain person answering to the name of Eusebio da Silva Ferreira — one of football’s greatest exponents ever — finished as the top-scorer in England with nine strikes. The Mozambique-born forward was in sublime form — recognised as Europe’s top footballer the previous year — and inspired his team to five wins in six games. Crucially though, the only loss came in the semi-finals against Bobby Charlton’s England, a match, after which the ‘Black Panther’ walked off the pitch in tears, comforted by both team-mates and opponents alike.

Probably the remarkable comeback win against North Korea — down 3-0 at one stage before finally winning 5-3 — in the quarter-finals had sucked the team dry.

Whatever be the reasons, Charlton’s two strikes were enough to send the Seleccao out and for the next 20 years it failed to mark another presence at the FIFA event. 1986 saw the team’s return to the world stage and with many predicting the Portugal to do wonders, it proceeded to do just the opposite. Players strike over prize money pushed football to the background and the team returned home with its tail tucked firmly between its legs, after two losses and a win.

Sixteen years later in 2002, history repeated itself. Portugal’s ‘Golden Generation’, led by Luis Figo, Rui Costa and Nuno Gomes crashed out in the first round, following a win against Poland, sandwiched between losses to the United States and South Korea.

A teary-eyed Eusebio is led from the pitch after Portugal’s semi-final defeat to England at Wembley in 1966.-AP

But still the first decade of the new century has been Portugal’s most successful to date. In this period the team qualified for all of the World Cups and EURO (Euro 2000, World Cup 2002, Euro 2004, World Cup 2006, Euro 2008, and World Cup 2010). Sadly, for the team, though, title triumphs have eluded its grasp and the story of heartbreaks has been exemplified by the gut-wrenching final loss to underdog Greece at home in EURO 2004.

Though it walked away with FIFA’s Most Entertaining Team award from the 2006 World Cup, it was also guilty of picking up the most yellow cards — 24 — by a team in a single competition.

For Portugal, it has always been a tale of so close yet so far. While its Iberian peninsular neighbour Spain finally shrugged off its under-achiever tag during this decade, Portugal has continued to stumble at the big stage and we should add the 2012 EURO semi-final loss to this list. One gets the sense of disappointment that has come to typify Portugal’s history.

While it may be asking too much of the talismanic Ronaldo to pull off an incredible victory in 2014, hope as always springs eternal.

* * * The mighty 'O Rei'

Eusebio (1961-1973): European football has been enriched by the presence of players from the African colonies, once occupied by them. And `O Rei' (the King) has been one of these outstanding lights.

A striker nonpareil, this Mozambique- born prolific goal-scorer was known for his speed, technique and a killer right foot.

Shortly after Eusebio's death, Alfredo di Stefano - the only player ahead of his 48 goals tally in pre-Champions League era - said, "For me Eusebio will always be the best player of all time."

Luis Figo (1991-2006): Portugal's most capped player with 127 call-ups, this Galatico will forever be known as one of the most gifted players of his generations. Figo (in pic.), who has a cabinetfull of club-level trophies, failed to win anything substantial for the national side.

Mario Coluna (1955-1968): Captain of the Os Magricos - the nickname of thePortugal team at the 1966 World Cup - in all except one match, Coluna was a central midfielder and earned 57 caps in all, scoring eight times. He was named in the FIFA All-Star team in 1966.

Pauleta (1997-2006): Fifth on Portugal's list of most national caps, he was his country's highest goal-scorer at 47 strikes when he retired. He has only recently been overtaken by Cristiano Ronaldo. Pauleta's goal celebration of spreading his arms like wings earned him the nickname `The Birdman of the Acores'.