For Portugal’s squad, the welcome at their World Cup base in the southern university city of Campinas on Wednesday could not have been warmer. There waiting to greet them at The Palms resort was a group from the local Casa Portugal dressed in traditional Portuguese costume and performing folk dances.
The arrival of 200 kilos of codfish flown across the Atlantic for the team chef ensured another taste of home for Paulo Bento’s men, but Portugal, in a World Cup taking place in their former colony of Brazil, may soon find themselves on trickier terrain.
It is tempting to assume that for Portugal, this Brazilian World Cup must have the feel of an English cricket or rugby tour to Australia – and we all know how badly those can turn out. Brazilians like to depict their old colonial overlords as dimwits, with jokes along the lines of “How many Portuguese does it take to fix a light bulb?”, and if Portugal’s footballers are to avoid the joke being on them, they will need Cristiano Ronaldo to shake off the fitness problems that have hampered his preparations ahead of a demanding programme.
Tomorrow they face Germany, with games against the USA and Ghana in Group G to follow, and in the words of defender Bruno Alves, they need to go into these tests with their leader, Ronaldo, currently suffering from tendinosis in the region around his left kneecap. “The biggest figure in world football has to be here and help us achieve our aims,” said Alves. “We count on our captain.”
Ronaldo struggled with a knee problem earlier in the season and faced doubts over his fitness before the Champions’ League final; although he scored Madrid’s fourth goal from the penalty spot that night, his impact was not what it might have been. Unlike Wayne Rooney, for instance, he can be a big influence even when not at maximum fitness, but when you factor in an additional calf problem, it is easy to understand why Portugal is holding its collective breath.
Nani is not a bad player but as a source of match-winning inspiration, he would be no substitute for Ronaldo, who scored a stunning hat-trick in the qualifying play-off against Sweden in Stockholm last November to drag Portugal into these finals. Even in Brazil, a country afflicted by Neymar-mania, there is a recognition that he is the world’s best player – even if it is influenced by the fact Lionel Messi is Argentinian.
Ronaldo will want to underline this point, and at 29 this is probably the final chance for him to really light up a World Cup in a manner befitting a player who has opened a museum dedicated to himself on his home island of Madeira. Although he became Portugal’s all-time record scorer when his two goals against Cameroon in March raised his total to 49 from 111 appearances, in World Cup finals he has struck just twice in 10 outings – a penalty against Iran in 2006, and the last of Portugal’s seven against North Korea four years ago. In mitigation, in 2006 he had yet to become the scoring force he is today; he has just recorded 31 La Liga goals and another 17 in the Champions’ League in a campaign where there was no holding back with the World Cup in mind.
The result is that he sat out two friendlies before featuring for 65 minutes of the team’s final warm-up fixture against the Republic of Ireland on Tuesday, and then sparked a flurry of over-anxious headlines on Thursday when pictured on the training pitch with an icepack on his left knee. It is a situation that dismays Tostao, the former Brazil World Cup winner-turned-journalist, who lamented in his newspaper column here the fitness problems troubling men like Ronaldo and Luis Suarez. “It’s a shame that a lot of ‘craques’ [top players] are not at the Copa and that others are not in top condition. Teams across the world play too much and the gap between the end of national competitions and the start of the World Cup is very short.”
For Portugal, it may not be the only negative they encounter on their Brazilian adventure, as those assuming they will be widely backed as every Brazilian’s second favourite team would be mistaken. There are footballing connections between the nations along with the colonial ones – from the mutual admiration between Eusebio and Pele via Luiz Felipe Scolari’s stint as national coach to the presence of Brazil-born Pepe in today’s squad – but it is a complicated relationship.
This is particularly the case in Salvador in the northeastern state of Bahia, the place where Portugal kick off their campaign against Germany and to which they will return in the Round of 16 should they finish as group runners-up.
In the Independent on Sunday’s straw poll of three Salvador taxi drivers, not one would consider taking Portugal as their second team. The fact that one named Cameroon was more illustrative of a city which, with Brazil’s largest black and mixed-race population, looks to Africa rather than Portugal.
Salvador owes its beautiful renaissance architecture to the Portuguese colonialists who made it Brazil’s first capital city in the 16th century yet when the Portuguese court moved south to Rio, the African influence took over in a place which was the first slave centre in the new world.
Unlike in Rio, Portuguese fans will struggle to find a Portuguese restaurant in a city which as Pedro Vasconcelos, a professor at the Federal University of Bahia, explains, carried on fighting the Portuguese for almost a year after Brazil’s independence had been declared in 1822. “It was the only place where battles were fought to get rid of the Portuguese,” he says. Portugal’s footballers will hope that is not an omen.
Portugal: Group G team profile
Portugal: Group G team profile
1/5 How they qualified
Portugal had a fairly easy task on hand against the likes of Russia, Israel, Azerbaijan, Northern Ireland and Luxembourg during the qualifiers but eventually failed to advance. A home loss to Russia and three draws led the favorites to second place albeit scoring 20 goals and conceding nine. Portugal then had the daunting task of facing Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s Sweden at the play-offs – which was a situation that could have gone either way. The Selescao won 1-0 at home but the second leg at Stockholm proved to be the biggest nail-biter of the play-offs as it took a Ronaldo hat trick to book his country’s tickets to Brazil with a 3-2 victory.
Paulo Bento played for Portugal at the 2002 World Cup alongside many legends such as Luis Figo. As a manager, he proved to be able to take the national team far, as Portugal made it to the semi-finals of Euro 2012 under his management. However, he will have to be careful not to repeat the same mistakes he committed at the qualifiers.
3/5 Star player
Cristiano Ronaldo is undoubtedly the team’s heart and soul as thanks to his goals in both play-off matches, Portugal were able to make it to another World Cup. This was a memorable season for CR7 as he won the Champions League as well as the Copa del Rey with Real Madrid, finished as the top scorer of La Liga with 31 goals and was awarded the Ballon d’Or. His incredible skills and athleticism could turn a few matches into a one man show.
4/5 Emerging talent
William Carvalho has only played two matches for Portugal but is already making the papers as possibly the next man to grace Manchester United’s midfield. Thanks to the 22-year-old’s brilliant passing skills and excellent positioning, the Sporting Lisbon star has been established as the team’s starting defensive midfielder.
5/5 How they will line up: (4-3-3)
Beto; Pereira, Pepe, Alves, Coentrao; Meireles, Carvalho, Moutinho; Nani, Almeida, Ronaldo.
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