Portugal in the 21st Century

The European Championships this summer were a lesson in team play, for both the robust attacking outfits and the overly conservative. Disregarding his country’s catenaccio history, Roberto Mancini looked to dominate play even against the brilliant Spanish, the summer’s premier ball-hoggers, and Italy were crowned eventual tournament winners on the back of brilliant team goals. Roberto Martinez’s Belgium set up with three defenders and focused heavily on attacking play, as did a somewhat lackluster Germany. On the flipside, France were unable to repeat their 2018 triumph with Didier Deschamps sticking to a pragmatic tactical setup. Gareth Southgate’s Three Lions similarly played deep and found few moments of true attacking promise, but their cohesiveness worked wonders. 

And then there was Portugal. They, like France and England, typically played deep, negative football, but their only respite came from one man, not their teamwork or cohesion. Ronaldo at 36 years old is still one of the world’s most prolific forwards and, by a distance, his country’s top player. Despite many of his goals this summer coming from the penalty spot, his movement in and around the box was the most threatening aspect of Portugal’s blunt attacking force. However, unlike England, whose success boiled down to Southgate’s pension for balancing defensive solidity with sporadic forward thrusts, Portugal were unenthusiastic whilst defending and despondent with the ball. The competition’s defending champions possessed no apparent gameplan once they had the ball, despite being a team flush with Premier League talent. This renewed Seleçao, a much more talented side than that in 2016, were somehow more lost and unenthusiastic than ever before. And with Ronaldo soon to retire, the Portuguese need a gameplan. Quickly.

I posit that any long-term strategy the Iberian country sets out to enact must focus less on the individual talent they have, but on a broader ambition that synthesizes club success and managerial excellence. In fact, the strategy should aim to use Portugal’s world-class players not just as an effective unit (for once) but to reshape the game as we know it. To explain, I must take us back seventy years to a time when smaller European nations fared much better on the international scene. Though the laws of a globalist transfer market dictate the impoverishment of countries like Portugal relative to the giants, some of the lessons learned can be applied to their current failings. They must be applied, for if they wait too long, it won’t be just Cristiano’s talent the team watches wither away. 

Portugal in 2016 were, by consensus, quite lucky to win the tournament, for their lack of imaginative attacking restricted their chances on goal. (Their semi-final win over Wales was their only victory in 90 minutes.) It was confirmation for many that these international tournaments lend themselves to conservative tactics, that blunting opponents’ moves comes before considering one’s own forward runs. Yet the Euros and World Cups have never been about defensiveness above all; in fact, these tournaments are where talented teams should come together to produce wonderful, revolutionary tactics that influence a generation. 

The Magical Magyars of Hungary played a stunning World Cup in 1954: Gustáv Sebes set his team out in their free-flowing 3-3-4, with two defenders operating like wing-backs and a midfielder sitting deep. Nándor Hidegkuti was a revelation as the attacking midfielder; he started as a part of a front five but would drop deeper to leave space for his teammates to run into, reminiscent of Leo Messi’s role as false-nine at Barcelona. This team was years ahead of its time, losing only once between 1950 and 1956.

Hungary kicked off the tournament in Switzerland with a 9-0 win over South Korea and thrashed West Germany 8-3 in a preview of the campaign’s final. Ferenc Puskás and his teammates would go on to surpass Brazil 4-2 and, with two Sándor Kocsis goals in extra time, defeated Uruguay by the same scoreline. Viewers were ready for another Hungarian triumph when they met the Germans again in Bern. Puskás and Zoltán Czibor each scored early, but before twenty minutes West Germany had brought the score level. 

However, Sebes’ side which had defeated England 6-3 in the “Match of the Century” a year earlier were undeterred by this resurgence. From minute twenty until the half, and for a majority of the second, they continued testing the German goalkeeper. In all, Hungary registered 26 shots and sixteen on target, a true tour de force in their second World Cup final. But with just over five minutes remaining, it was the West Germans who nabbed a winning goal. That rainy evening was dubbed the Miracle of Bern: such was the perceived gulf in quality between the two sides, and the world’s surprise at Hungary’s incredible capitulation. 

While Gustáv Sebes had failed to lead Hungary to a tournament victory, his team showed how one takes the world by storm with a revolutionary strategy. On the pitch, he used a formation known as the W-W, an altered version of the W-M formation so widely used at the time. But it wasn’t just a fantastic tactic that portended success; the combination of players was vital. Of the starting XI in Bern, only Jenö Buzánszky and Mihály Tóth were not currently on the books at either Budapest Honvéd or MTK. The state-backed Honvéd were a powerhouse, with Puskás, Kocsis, and Czibor all connecting for club and country. For MTK, their coach Márton Bukovi had previously developed the W-W working with Mihály Lantos, József Zakariás, and the evergreen Hidegkuti, who all brought their tactical know-how to a team full of attacking prowess. Think of a lab technician who knows exactly which elements to forge as one: that chemical reaction is what made the Magyars so fearsome, and so fluid.

What we see with Portugal in the present day is quite the opposite of Sebes’ Hungary. The team is spread far and wide with their clubs, which makes forming a solid identity difficult. Bernardo Silva and Ruben Dias play across Manchester from Bruno Fernandes in two very different tactical setups. At Wolves, we find Portugal’s largest contingent of players; Nelson Semedo, Joao Moutinho, Rui Patricio, and Diogo Jota have all played for them in the past year or so. Besides the Premier League contingent, the squad is all over the continent. Ronaldo was in Italy before his United transfer, while Joao Felix and William Carvalho are at two Spanish clubs. Raphaël Guerreiro and Andre Silva are in Germany and Renato Sanches recently won Ligue 1 in France with Lille. Most other players either rarely featured for Portugal this summer or play in Lisbon or Porto. 

Here we have a group of players who, like the Portugal sides of the preceding decades, come from various backgrounds and tactical blueprints. Logically, the easiest way to play well with such a diverse group is to play it safe: sit back and take your chances when they arise. Relying on individual quality like that of Ronaldo’s is perhaps most appealing in a defensive side like this one coached by Fernando Santos. But does it pay dividends over a long-term period, as teams begin to figure out ways to disturb your prominent attackers? As Portugal go forward, not only is there a need to adopt a more offensive strategy, but to work with domestic clubs to offer players a seamless transition from the club season to high-pressure summer tournaments. 

Sebes benefited from two things that Portugal can’t and will never have: more time with players and a league unaffected by the transfer market. The Aranycsapat (Hungarian for “Golden Team”) worked with clubs like MTK and Honvéd to ensure players had as much time with their national side as possible. People report Sebes treating international breaks just like club time: players trained consistently to prepare themselves physically and mentally for opponents. Additionally, the European transfer market wouldn’t start taking shape until decades later, so stars like Hidegkuti and Puskas could remain at Hungarian clubs with their national teammates. These aided Sebes like no other factors—they’re probably what turned a potentially great national side into one of football’s most revered teams of all time. 

Billionaire owners of Premier League sides are unlikely to cede to Santos if he were to attempt a replication. There’s simply too much at stake for these clubs. What if Bruno were to be injured because training was held in Lisbon every other midweek? It’s also damn near impossible for the likes of Benfica and Porto to hold onto these stars for very long. Like the Dutch and the Belgians, their finances simply aren’t robust enough to turn down tens of millions of euros for young stars, money which is crucial to balance the books and make necessary club improvements. 

On the surface this seems like an impossible task to repeat the success of teams like Hungary in years past. But what was the one thing the Magical Magyars did that any good side could feasibly do today? They changed the way we think about the game: about its players, its tactics, and the strategy that shapes a winning team. Nothing against Ronaldo, or Rui Costa or Luis Figo of yesteryear, but it takes more than a talented team to make a truly historical impact on the game. 

Portuguese football is actually not so divorced from that of Hungary. In fact, in the decade that followed the Miracle of Bern, a Hungarian coach would become Portugal’s most legendary club manager of the era. Béla Guttmann was a Jewish psychologist born at the turn of the 20th Century and a leading figure in Hungary’s golden age of football. While his compatriot Sebes is remembered for leading the national team, it’s Guttmann who was perhaps the more brilliant coach on his day. Sebes led his country by making broad, philosophical changes, but Guttmann’s effect was always short-term, if still sweeping in scale. 

After a frantic episode during World War II, when Guttmann overcame stir-craziness as he hid in a relative’s attic from the Nazis, he toured Europe as a manager. His big break, however, was in Brazil, as he led São Paulo to a state championship in 1957. Guttmann then took his first Portuguese job, at Porto, where he won the Liga in his first season before joining rivals Benfica. It’s only fitting that yesterday’s phenomenal journeyman manager would reach his peak in Lisbon, a city of traveling sailors and cultural convergence. 

Guttmann was truly at the peak of his powers at Benfica, both in a tactical and a mental sense. Before signing on, the Hungarian made a point of requesting a large bonus to be paid out if Benfica won the European Cup. The board happily accepted, imagining no way in hell the team would do so. Guttmann summarily slashed twenty players from the first team squad, opting to use the youth team instead of a rotting senior squad. Benfica would win the league two years running and, led by the imperial Eusébio and the “Golden Head” of José Águas, managed to twice win the European Cup. In 1961, Guttmann’s side defeated Barcelona 3-2 and, next year, repeated their dominance by smashing Real Madrid 5-3 in what many saw as the passing of the torch from Alfredo Di Stefano to Eusébio. Benfica had not only built a genuine continental superpower, but they did so by beating two of the Iberian peninsula’s most feared opponents. 

Guttmann’s journey in Lisbon would come to a startling finish when the Benfica board refused to pay his European Cup bonus. Upon quitting, the manager reportedly cursed the club from winning another European title for one-hundred years. Doubt has been cast as to whether Guttmann actually said this, but the Portuguese side is yet to win another European final after that 1962 triumph, despite appearing in nine.

While the marriage of Benfica and Guttmann was short-lived, he was almost the perfect man to lead the club. Guttmann’s focus was never building a club’s system from the ground up: he coined the phrase “the third season is fatal”. Instead, I liken him to a José Mourinho figure, one who waltzes into a club with a supreme confidence that transforms a squad (sometimes literally) overnight. Even in the 60s, Benfica had a quality youth setup and had achieved great popularity. At that juncture, it only takes a brilliant mind to fit all of the pieces together to achieve success.

By the logic of many football watchers, Guttmann’s short-term philosophy is more applicable to the international game. But I’d like to offer the opposite notion. What if, instead of hiring the brilliant, all-encompassing strategists to the club side, we looked towards short-termism at the club level and long-termism at the national level? For a country like Portugal this makes sense; we need to get the best out of clubs who are up against stronger European competition, success which has been achieved with short-term managers like Guttmann and Mourinho. On the contrary, the national team is where the futuristic ideas come from, ideas which trickle down into the systems of Benfica, Sporting, and Porto.

When we view the team through this lens, we see that Fernando Santos may have coached the Seleçao for upwards of seven years, but his method is more akin to that of Guttmann. There is no strategy for the clubs to look towards: he uses the players at his disposal (sometimes not very well) but he doesn’t attempt to form any semblance of a cohesive unit. “Players such as Fernandes, Bernardo and Félix have been sacrificed in the name of defensive solidity,” argued one of Portugal’s most respected journalists and football pundits Carlos Daniel in the wake of the 4-2 Germany loss. “But you can achieve defensive solidity by hogging possession of the ball, precisely with these types of players.” Santos doesn’t have the ambition of a Sebes, nor does he seem to have any plan for the departure of Ronaldo. 

I don’t want to be misconstrued as being overly critical of Santos, nicknamed the “Engineer” for the degree he acquired in the seventies, as well as his managerial success with Porto. It’s quite poetic, in fact. An engineer’s mentality is to build, of course, but oftentimes his role is to fix. Guttmann engineered a world-beating squad at Benfica out of some youth players. Santos clearly has what it takes to win tournaments and domestic league titles; why doesn’t he go back to Porto, or another top Portuguese side, to lead them to some form of European success? That success will then bring the domestic league more funds, giving them a higher chance of not only retaining Portuguese internationals for longer, but recruiting veterans back to the teams of their youth. 

Whether a new national team manager focuses on attacking or conservative play is not quite the question, although the former would lead to more success. The important thing is that they institute a strategy that uses Portugal’s best players to form a team unlike anything Europe possesses at the moment. 

Despite losing in ‘54, the Hungarians gave themselves the best chance of winning by playing with cohesion and with confidence. They dominated their opponents, even in losses. Though Puskas was the frontman, it wasn’t any one player who determined their brilliance. Sebes was the most pertinent cog in their engine out of anyone, but it was his planning combined with the club relationships that made the Magyars the best international side of all time, according to the BBC. To replicate that synthesis of factors in the modern game is nigh on impossible, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be attempted. 

The solution to Portugal’s ailments shouldn’t be in one player, but in one coach, and a whole strategy that incorporates the success of club sides and their players. And don’t get me wrong: despite their 2016 success, now is the time for a change. The worst crime Portuguese football could commit is to be remembered for one player, Cristiano Ronaldo, instead of their self-evident impact on the game.

Alex Dieker

Alex is an American college student studying marketing, but his passion lies in football writing. A fan of the quirkiness and underappreciated aspects of the game, it comes as no surprise that he loves Dutch football.