Perhaps because Portugal has fielded some of the greatest players ever to grace a soccer field -- Eusebio, Luis Figo, Cristiano Ronaldo -- it’s easy to forget that Portugal is an overachiever in the soccer world.
Before the 2014 World Cup, then Portugal coach Paulo Bento pointed out that, with a population of only 10.5 million, Portugal faces a challenge competing with traditional powers such as Spain, Germany, Brazil and Argentina.
“Portugal doesn’t have as big a pool of players to pick from as those four nations … even so, results have been extremely positive in recent years,” Paulo Bento said. “We were semifinalists at Euro 2000 and at the 2006 World Cup, while we reached the final of Euro 2004. Given the size of our country and the number of players we can pick from, it’s very positive.”
Lack of depth certainly hurt Portugal at the 2014 World Cup, which Ronaldo entered with a knee injury after helping Real Madrid win the UEFA Champions League. Portugal exited the World Cup in Brazil at the group stage because of an inferior goal difference to the USA in Group C.
Four years ago, at the 2014 European Championship, Portugal beat the Denmark, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic before losing to Spain in the semifinals in a penalty-kick shootout.
But at Euro 2016, under Coach Fernando Santos, Portugal won its first title, beating host France, 1-0, in overtime despite losing Ronaldo to a knee injury early in the first half.
Much had been made of Portugal scraping its way through the Euro 2016 group stage with three ties and leading only once in seven games after 90 minutes. But in a tournament plagued by defensive soccer -- a dismal average of 2.12 goals per game -- Portugal actually provided more offense than most of the 24 teams.
Over seven games, Portugal equaled France’s 121 shots for a 17.29 per game average. Yes, Portugal struggled in group play, but its 63 shots were 20 more than France took in its first three games. Iceland may have been the media darling of Euro 2016 while Portugal took heaps of criticism, but when the two teams met in their 1-1 tie, Icelandic keeper Hannes Halldorsson made 10 saves while Rui Patricio, besides giving up a goal, did not face another shot on target.
The final marked Portugal’s third overtime game of the tournament and it defeated the team that eliminated World Cup champion Germany.
BEST PORTUGAL FINISHES
Champion Euro 2016
Runner-up Euro 2004
Third place World Cup 1966
Fourth place World Cup 2006
Semifinals Euro 2012
Semifinals Euro 2000
Uruguay, with only 3.5 million residents, won the 2011 Copa America and finished fourth at the 2010 World Cup. Chile (17.6 million) is two-time Copa America champion.
The Netherlands (population: 16.8 million) has long been admired as a small nation that produces world-class players and competes for titles. But the Dutch failed to qualify for Euro 2016, losing twice to Iceland.
Now, Portugal deserves the title as the world’s greatest small soccer nation.