Barely a word was heard on Portugal’s flight from Munich to Budapest after the reigning European champions were torn apart 4-2 by Germany on Saturday.
“There was frustration and sadness. I don’t even know if anyone spoke on our way back,” said head coach Fernando Santos.
It was not just the humiliating defeat, but the reality check for a team whose level of confidence going into a major tournament had never been so high. For the first time, the Selecao were viewed as strong contenders rather than dark horses. The hype had escalated to such a point that the whole debate in the country revolved around whether this was the best Portuguese side of all time.
In terms of results, following the Euro 2016 and 2019 Nations League trophies, there doesn’t seem to be much doubt about that – not even the usually pragmatic Santos disagrees.
It will all have been useless, though, if Cristiano Ronaldo and co fail to secure a point against France on Wednesday in a match that has more at stake than booking a place in the knockout stages.
They will need to overcome a psychological hurdle that has troubled them in the past but that they assumed they had moved beyond. The thrashing by Germany revived it – an inferiority complex that left them trembling before games against big teams and held them back from fulfilling their potential in the past.
Stopping Kylian Mbappe, Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann is the only way to make sure it doesn’t become a thing again.
They couldn’t be better equipped for the challenge – the current crop of players has been described as the new golden generation.
Ruben Dias, Diogo Jota, Bruno Fernandes and Bernardo Silva are star names in a squad almost entirely made up of talent who ply their trades abroad.
It was not always like this, though. Until the 1990s, apart from Atletico Madrid’s Paulo Futre and Juventus’ Rui Barros, the vast majority of the footballers came from the domestic league, especially from Benfica and Porto. The club rivalry didn’t make things easy in the dressing room and on the team bus Benfica’s players used to sit at the front, with Porto’s at the back. They didn’t even share the same table for meals.
“The truth is that although they played as one team during games, realising at some point that they were all wearing the same shirt, the atmosphere we had around the team was not of commitment or friendship,” recalls Toni, a former national team assistant manager who works as a football pundit. “Those were complicated times.”
There was also another issue: back then, Portuguese footballers were particularly famous for having a losing mentality.
It’s something they had to fight hard to leave behind, but that is still brought up every once in a while, like this week.
“We headed to international tournaments around Europe as if we had already lost,” says former international Toze. “That was the typical Portuguese player mentality. You heard things like, ‘Oh, we are going to play Italy… Let’s make sure we don’t lose by a big score.’ This was how we used to think.
“The man who changed this was Carlos Queiroz [who coached Portugal Under-17s and subsequently the Under-20s from 1988 to 1991]. The first thing he said when we met for the first time in training was that we would be world champions. Everybody laughed at him.”
Sir Alex Ferguson’s former Manchester United assistant actually meant it.
In 1989, Portugal won the Under-20 World Cup in Saudi Arabia, and it was Toze who lifted the trophy with Queiroz by his side. From that day on, Riyadh became a part of the Portuguese football vocabulary and has never been forgotten.
It was the birth of the country’s first golden generation. They successfully defended the title in 1991, this time in front of 127,000 fans at the Estadio da Luz in Lisbon. Things would never be the same again.
The following years would see Portuguese footballers leaving for the first time in a consistent way to Europe’s top five leagues – Luis Figo, Fernando Couto and Vitor Baia earned transfers to Barcelona, Rui Costa moved to Fiorentina and Paulo Sousa joined Juventus.
It naturally had an impact on the Selecao, who benefited from having some of its leading figures competing in a much more challenging environment.
“Queiroz’s work was sort of an oasis that led us to a turning point in our history. This generation would convert Portugal into a regular presence in the World Cup and Euros finals,” says Toni.
“But how did we get here? First of all, the clubs’ facilities were massively improved; the coaches, too – we have a very good system for developing them; then, the Bosman ruling, which allowed more players to go abroad – the national team is not formed only by players from Benfica, Porto and Sporting any more; and finally, the work we do in youth football, with bright minds that have allowed us to reach the current position.
“You have to bear in mind that this is a country that played the 1966 World Cup and then failed to make it back until 1986. This is no longer our reality.”
All of these factors explain how Portugal has managed to come up with another golden generation so soon after the first one, who themselves reached the quarter-finals of Euro 96, the Euro 2000 semi-finals and the Euro 2004 final.
Obviously, having a five-time Ballon d’Or winner in Ronaldo, whose ambition to succeed is unparalleled in the sport, certainly helps as well. He’s the only player still around to have played in both eras and is featuring at a record fifth Euros in 17 years. In the opening game against Hungary, his two strikes took him clear of Michel Platini as the record scorer in European Championship history with 11 goals.
“I have no doubt Ronaldo is a key part of this process,” says former international Fernando Meira. “He has a quality and determination that can only inspire other players to follow his example. One cannot ignore that.
“When you have the best next to you and compete with the best, it drives you to another level. You will not settle for anything less than the title.”
Before the tournament, manager Santos chuckled: “The goal is to be champions. I’m taking a suitcase for one month, and tobacco, too.”
But will the 66-year-old still be in jovial mood on Wednesday? Lose to France and the old psychological scars are likely to return.