Yesterday’s FIFA World Cup exit at the hands of Morocco feels like a significant moment in Portugal’s history, it is a defeat that signals the end of one era and the beginning of another.
The rumours suggest that manager Fernando Santos, who is contracted until after Euro 2024, won’t be sticking around much longer. When asked about his future, Santos calmly responded that he would be travelling to Lisbon to have discussions with the president about what happens next. No further reports have emerged at the time of writing. Santos’ name will forever be etched in Portugal’s history books as the man who delivered Portugal their first international title, beating favourites France on home soil to win the European Championship in 2016. He added another trophy to the cabinet in 2019, guiding Portugal to the inaugural UEFA Nations League, beating Holland 1-0 in the final. Like with anything in life there are always two sides of the same coin, for some supporters, there is an underlying sense of frustration and missed opportunity that Portugal didn’t win more than they did with this crop of players, that Portugal were perhaps constricted at times and didn’t play as fluidly and cohesively as their talent suggested that they could have. Whatever your view, the potential departure of Santos and several key players will spark a period of change and transition for A Seleção.
When João Moutinho was left off the squad list for the World Cup, there was a feeling that his omission was the beginning of the end for this cycle of players and that after the World Cup, a few more players would begin to disappear from the international picture altogether. The Wolves midfielder is currently second on the list of all-time appearances for Portugal with a whopping 146 and it seems unlikely that he will get the chance to add to that tally from this moment on. In terms of players selected for the tournament, it felt like this World Cup could be the last for Pepe (39), Cristiano Ronaldo (37) and Rui Patricio (34), three international stalwarts who have racked up a combined 434 appearances for Portugal over a span of nearly two decades. The oldest player of the three featured the most, with Pepe playing four full matches across 14 days, including playing part of the Morocco match with a broken arm, something which encapsulates Pepe’s heroic nature better than words ever could. Rui Patricio, christened São Patrício due to his heroics in Euro 2016 failed to make an appearance during the tournament and Portugal’s all-time goalscorer Cristiano Ronaldo started on the bench in both of Portugal’s knockout games. Portugal may have some fantastic young talent coming through, but the shoes of the aforementioned players will be difficult to fill in the coming years.
In an Instagram post earlier today, Cristiano wrote that “winning a World Cup for Portugal was the biggest and most ambitious dream of my career…I fought hard for this dream…I gave my all.” He then added, “Sadly yesterday that dream ended”. Whatever your opinion on Ronaldo, seeing the man who has been Portugal’s saviour time and time again walk down the tunnel in floods of tears was a sombre and sobering moment. Seeing his tears made me think of my own tears watching the Euro 2004 final as a small child, they made me reflect on a player who inspired a generation and on some of his highlights in a Portugal shirt. His winning penalty as a 21-year-old vs England in 2006, his second-half hat-trick vs Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s Sweden to singlehandedly send Portugal to the World Cup, his double against the Dutch to dump them out of the Euros and fire Portugal into the last eight or his sensational hat-trick vs Spain at the 2018 World Cup.
We don’t know what the future holds but if it is to be the end of Pepe, Ronaldo, Patrício and Santos with the Seleção, then I just want to thank them for the moments that they allowed millions around the world to believe and rejoice.