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Rising Nations – Portugal: The second coming of a golden generation

Ronaldo

From the despair of Euro 2004 to the ecstasy of Euro 2016, Portuguese football has come far.

‘Twenty years ago, we had football seven-a-side for kids in the sand. Not in the grass. Now it’s not like that.’, recalls Luís Martins to FTF.

The landscape of Portuguese football has drastically transformed over the past two decades.

The disappointment of losing the final against Greece on their home soil is something that will always bring a sour taste to Portuguese minds. But perhaps, looking back now, it may have been a case of taking one step back to jump two steps forward.

The enduring image of a young Cristiano Ronaldo in tears on that fateful night in Lisbon is now replaced by another image of him in tears. Except for this time, it was only tears of joy, at his country’s success at Euro 2016 and subsequent success in the UEFA Nations League.

Martins has seen it all. Having actively worked with the likes of Ronaldo, João Moutinho and Nani at Sporting Club, he has witnessed the evolution of his country from the inside and out.

Ahead of Euro 2020, Portugal face a critical test of their ability, mettle and mentality. Manager Fernando Santos and his side will need to be at the top of their game if they are to defend their claim as European Champions.

FTF spoke to Martins exclusively about Portugal’s history, the culture, the struggles, and the progress.

Fernando Santos’ importance in the evolution

In the past two decades, Portugal have had three managers try their luck at steering the country’s talents towards success.

In the early 2000s, it was Luiz Felipe Scolari who led Portugal’s first ‘golden generation’ to the Euros.

‘Back then, my opinion was Portugal had very good players in individual class – Luis Figo, Rui Costa before Cristiano Ronaldo,’ Martins recalls to FTF.

‘ But really,  it was difficult to see a balance in the team. With Scolari, we had a strong squad, but we didn’t have the experience or the right mentality to challenge for the title’.

Santos and man-management

Martins admits all that of Fernando Santos’ predecessors were strong in their own right, however, there is one thing that sets Santos apart from the rest and makes him better.

‘I appreciate Santos’ management style for Portugal and it is totally different from what he did in Greece. His style of man-management and to make the team competitive on the pitch with strong ability in offensive moments, that’s what sets him apart’, Martins clearly underlines.

‘To manage a team with really good players like Fernando Santos has done, you need a magical touch with respect to man-management and motivation. And that’s what he can do because he’s a very experienced and clever coach.’

“Some people say I’m crazy because I say that we are not favorites as well as saying that we have the quality to win. There are many candidates. Portugal has the objective to go to France, win games and win the European Championships.”

– Santos’ statement to the press in late 2015

Martins recalls the surprise of the Portuguese people at Santos’ remarks.

‘I must say, a few people here in Portugal, when they heard him say that at the beginning, were quite surprised. They did not trust in his statements at the time. However, after two-three games in the first few rounds, we saw that Fernando builds a team like no other has done.’

Another thing that Santos was very careful about was the relation of the national camp with the clubs of his players.

‘I had the role of the assistant coach at Zenit St. Petersburg and every time we play at home, Santos sent someone or came directly to Russia to see the games and speak with the players, the coaches. And when you have such an environment in your hands, it makes all the difference’, Martins explains.

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Rise of the second golden generation

When Portugal lined up against France in the final at Euro 2016, their front line was Nani, Cristiano Ronaldo(who was substituted early), Quaresma and a young João Mário. The attackers were closer to their 30s and Eder, who eventually scored the historic winning goal was 26. So naturally, there was a dearth of young and exciting talent.

Fast forward to 2021, that is no longer the case. Ronaldo remains the sole veteran in the squad at 36. João Félix, André Silva, Diogo Jota, Pedro Gonçalves, Gonçalo Guedes, Bernardo Silva and Rafa Silva are the second coming of Portugal’s golden generation.

‘Portugal is changing, its ability to work at youth levels across all clubs and within the national setup as well. Also, the players in Portugal, if they are at a very good level, they go out to the best leagues in Europe. Some others appear a bit later, like Fernandes,’ Martins elaborates.

‘The guys who leave Portugal (like Bernardo Silva,  João Cancelo) come back with the knowledge which is very important in challenging for big competitions. In Portugal, twenty years ago, just one club had an academy. And now, all of them, have one and if they don’t, they have very good youth facilities.’

Learning from others

Martins further goes on to explain how the Portuguese football federation has also learned from the structure and practices of other countries, including Germany and England, who themselves have a very exciting young crop of talent coming up.

‘ What they do in Germany and England is very important for the Portuguese federation. Because the English FA has excellent projects at youth levels for the long-term development of the players. We have that knowledge here too now. Closer to Portugal, we also learn a lot from Iceland and we’ve mixed all of that. Now I think we have a very good foundation for growing young players.’

The turning point for Portugal

‘I think we had the turning point about twenty years ago,’ Martins recalls.

By the 1990s, Portugal was going through several changes and political crises. At the end of it all, they had solidified themselves as a democracy and that was a key moment in time for Portuguese society and football as well.

‘ In the 90s here in Portugal, the situation was too different. A coach like me, if I go to work at the youth level, I cannot live on that. I would need another job to live. Because if I go to another club apart from Porto, Sporting or Benfica, I don’t have a proper salary.

And now, there are 100, 200 guys who can work with jobs at those levels, this is just an example. Things change and the number of material resources and human resources has now drastically changed,’ says Martins.

Eyes on the prize and immense focus

Given that the national team has now won the last two available international trophies, the pressure and expectations on the heads of some young shoulders in the team is quite high.

Nonetheless, Santos has managed to create an environment  where the players are entirely focused on performing for the team without paying too much attention to the noise outside.

‘The mentality now inside the team is too different. The work is very focused and internal. It’s one of the characteristics of Fernando Santos’ teams, once the players go inside, they don’t speak about things outside,’ Martins says.

‘ I have two friends on the staff of Fernando Santos and we never speak about the team,’ he chuckles.

‘The environment around the team is very closed and very restrictive.’

The Sporting connection

Martins believes Portugal have a very good chance of retaining their title as European champions. With a squad bolstered with exciting young attacking talent as well as the experience and nous of the old guard, Santos and his men may just make history at Euro 2020.

‘ During Euro 2016, I worked as a commentator for Sport TV here in Portugal. At the time, there were 14 players on the list of the national team that I knew like myself, because they came from Sporting,’ Martins recalls.

Aurélio Pereira, the scout who discovered Cristiano Ronaldo and several other Sporting youth products.

‘At the time, everyone called Aurelio’s team because he(Aurélio Pereira) is a very old scout at Sporting who has scouted Ronaldo, Moutinho, Rui Patricio, amongst others. He has worked across three different generations for Sporting.’

‘He is very old now, but he has a very good eye. No Wyscout, just his eyes.’ laughs  Martins.

The future with and without Ronaldo

With over 100 goals for Portugal in the past decade, there is little doubt that Cristiano Ronaldo is the country’s leader and often the man looked up to on big occasions.

Now at the age of 36 and entering his twilight years at club and country, many may think Ronaldo is close to the end. Martins smiles at the suggestion and disagrees.

‘I don’t want to give you any secrets, but I think he wants to play a few more years. Sometimes, when I’ve spoken with him, what I feel is he’s going to try and play abroad in the final years of his career.’

‘ I can say that he’s a little different now than when I worked with him at 16. Even then he was so good,’ recalls Martins.

The future looks bright for Portuguese football. With or without Ronaldo, things seem to be heading in the right direction with all of the talent coming through at U21 level and players at senior level as well. Their captain can rest easy about the future.

‘ I think the current generation of players is very good. We saw what happened in the final at Euro 2016. Without Ronaldo, we were able to make it, without a striker, a guy like Eder. It’s not about one name, it’s about the team,’ says Martins.

‘We have the conditions, to expect from Portugal, a strong team, for the next five-six years.’

How far can this team go?

Portugal have a lot of players coming into this tournament in a good vein of form and they are a safe bet as one of the favorites for Euro 2020.

Placed in Group F alongside Hungary, Germany and France, the task is certainly massive on Santos’ hands. But if there is anybody who can do it, it is probably him and his assistant on the pitch, Ronaldo.

With players like Andre Silva, Pedro Gonçalves, Bruno Fernandes who have hit double figures for goals, the burden on Ronaldo to carry the team will certainly be lightened. The now-injury free Diogo Jota will  surely be another to look out for during the tournament.

This is Portugal’s chance at making history once again. They’ve been here before, they know what it takes, they might just go all the way once again.

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