Portugal have become a major force at the FIFA World Cup™ in recent years. Though the generation led by Coluna and Eusebio made a mark at England 1966 and a second appearance came at Mexico 1986, it is only since Korea/Japan 2002 that the Portuguese have been ever-presents at the world finals.
In that time they have churned out more than their fair share of talent, from Luis Figo and the generation that preceded Cristiano Ronaldo, who made his World Cup debut at Germany 2006, to Bernardo Silva and the rest of CR7’s supporting cast.
Portugal finished fourth on Ronaldo’s debut on the big stage but have failed to progress beyond the last 16 since then, though they have converted their seemingly endless supply of talent into silverware by winning UEFA EURO 2016 and the UEFA Nations League in 2019. Ronaldo is anxious to get his hands on the one Trophy missing from that list.
“I think Cancelo’s the best full-back in the world right now,” said Portugal coach Fernando Santos, giving an indication of the stature and importance of the player in his side. Cancelo was on the pitch for 694 minutes in his country’s FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™ qualification campaign, fewer than only two of his team-mates, both of whom are in this list.
It might be worth asking Santos which side he believes Cancelo is better on, given that he has appeared on both flanks of the Manchester City defence, and in midfield. Having spotted Cancelo’s versatility, Pep Guardiola is intent on making the most of it.
Comfortable on the ball, Cancelo prefers to play on the right and has developed significantly in finding his way to City from Benfica, via Valencia, Inter Milan and Juventus. “Joao just loves playing football – morning, noon and night, day in day out,” said his club coach. “He’s a really funny guy and they love him in the dressing room.”
Like Cancelo, Dias is another Benfica product, albeit from the following generation. And like Cancelo, Dias also plays his club football for Manchester City. In his first year with the club (2020-21), his quality and tactical awareness earned him a place in many a team of the season, alongside the usual array of midfielders and forwards.
“He’s one of the best signings I’ve made here, by a long way,” said an appreciative Guardiola. “He aims for perfection in everything he does on and off the pitch. He always plays well and he makes everyone around him play well too. He’s a generous player and he’s always thinking about how he can help his team-mates on the pitch.”
Few midfielders in Europe have impressed as much in attack as Fernandes in the last four years, the player having moved from Sporting Clube de Portugal to a Manchester United side looking to reassert themselves in the hugely competitive Premier League.
He showed that prowess in the European play-offs for Qatar 2022, scoring one of the goals in the 2-0 defeat of North Macedonia that took the Portuguese to the world finals. Fernandes poses a threat on the edge of the box thanks to both his shooting skills and his ability to pick out a team-mate when space is at a premium. And when it comes to dead-ball situations and penalties, few are as lethal or reliable as he is.
Those words, uttered by Fernando Santos after seeing Cristiano Ronaldo score twice in Portugal’s 4-0 defeat of Switzerland in June 2022, speak for themselves. When a living legend like CR7 is the topic of conversation, it can be hard to come up with anything original.
Ronaldo went into his international career as the rising star of the future in a team led by the likes of Luis Figo and Rui Costa, the main men of the country’s so-called “golden generation”. He now finds himself the veteran in a team packed with players who are at, or about to reach, their peak. His ability to worry any defence remains intact, which is why Santos had him on the pitch for fully 810 minutes during the Qatar 2022 qualifiers, more than any other player in the side, this despite his age – only centre-half Pepe is older.
Ronaldo’s list of honours includes practically every competition he has graced, including UEFA EURO 2016. All that is missing is a World Cup winners’ medal. “Winning with Portugal has always been my dream, he said in an interview with Spanish sports daily AS. “I’ve won two titles, including the Nations League, and now I want the World Cup. I’ve lifted trophies with every club I’ve played for, but the World Cup is my big dream.
Another player to take the Benfica-Manchester City route, with several stops along the way. And another to earn effusive praise from Guardiola, who will no doubt be keeping a very close eye on Portugal’s progress at the World Cup.
I always tell him: ‘You’re the perfect player’, said the Spanish coach. He doesn’t just play football; he understands football. He uses his intuition when he’s defending and he’s outstanding when he’s on the ball. He has so much talent.
Vital for club and country, the Portugal No10 was second only to Ronaldo in terms of minutes played during the national team’s Qatar 2022 qualification campaign, chalking up 734 in total. When he’s on his game he’s among the top ten players in the world,” said Portugal boss Santos. In my view and in terms of technique, tactical awareness and talent, Bernardo’s up there in the top ten.