Portugal and Ireland cross paths again as Cristiano Ronaldo nears another landmark

Portugal, with 41-year-old Pepe at the heart of their defence, are justifiably one of the favourites for Euro 2024


Describing any footballer as the star player of his country would ordinarily be considered the ultimate compliment. For Cristiano Ronaldo, however, this description underestimates both his playing talents and his astrological status, which received a significant upgrade in 2015 when an entire galaxy (the “Cosmos Redshift 7″) was named after him.

On Tuesday Ronaldo faces Ireland in what might well be his last international on home soil. In a senior international career of 21 years and counting, Ronaldo has scored 128 goals in 206 matches and is in the happy position of breaking records every time he takes to the field. Next week Ronaldo will become the first person to appear in six European Championships – a tournament in which he already holds the records both for appearances (25) and goals (14).

Ronaldo has a response to critics who think he shows too much interest in personal records for a performer in a team sport. In May when his 35 strikes for Al-Nassr set a new record for goals scored in a Saudi Pro League season, Ronaldo informed his 631 million followers on Instagram with characteristic modesty that “I do not follow the records, the records follow me”.

Unfortunately, our defenders did not follow Ronaldo sufficiently closely during Ireland’s last visit to Portugal, in September 2021 for a World Cup qualifier, so Ireland went from leading 1-0 in the 89th minute to losing 2-1, thanks to a late Ronaldo double that made him the highest scorer in the history of international football.

READ MORE

The reverse fixture two months later at Lansdowne Road finished 0-0, with Ronaldo returning to the city where he made his Real Madrid debut at Tallaght Stadium in 2009. The only other time that Ireland and Portugal were in the same World Cup qualifying group was for the 2002 tournament. This proved much more memorable for the Boys in Green, with the countries playing out a pair of 1-1 draws that enabled both to qualify for the finals at the expense of the Netherlands.

The two countries took an even more gentlemanly approach to qualification in 1950 when Scotland pulled out of the World Cup at the last minute. Fifa offered the vacant spot to Portugal and when they refused Ireland were invited to compete but they too declined. On possibly the only occasion in their entire history when the FAI could be accused of excessive financial prudence, they believed that the £2,700 cost of travelling to Brazil would bankrupt them.

Less happily, Irish supporters of a certain vintage still hold Portuguese referee Raul Nazare to blame for our failing to qualify for the 1982 World Cup on goal difference. In the crucial qualifier away to Belgium, Nazare disallowed a Frank Stapleton goal for reasons that, more than four decades later, remain utterly inexplicable.

Although Portugal and Ireland joined Fifa on the same day in 1923 they did not play against each other until 1946. Portugal won that friendly in Lisbon 3-1 in what was Ireland’s first international for seven years. In 1972 the countries met in the Brazilian Independence Cup in Recife, with Portugal winning 2-1 in a match in which José Mourinho’s goalkeeper father Félix won his only international cap as a late substitute.

Unfortunately Uefa’s forensic seeding system means Irish and Portuguese teams now rarely clash in Europe. In 1989 Derry City’s reward for becoming the only side to secure a domestic treble was a European Cup tie against Benfica, then managed by Sven-Goran Eriksson. Among the visiting contingent was Eusébio, who was invited on to the Brandywell pitch to draw the half-time raffle.

In 2010 Sporting Fingal played the only European tie of their short existence against Marítimo in the Europa League, with the Portuguese side progressing 6-4 on aggregate. The following year Dublin was the venue for the only all-Portuguese European final ever, when Porto beat Braga 1-0 to win the 2011 Europa League at the Aviva Stadium.

A number of outstanding Irish talents are based in Portugal. Currently on the books of Marítimo is Ireland under-21 international Mipo Odubeko while Ireland under-19 international Cristiano Fitzgerald (named after you know who) plays for Estrela. Expected to join the exodus is 16-year-old Cork City winger Jaden Umeh, who is close to completing his move to Benfica.

Waterford United striker Pádraig Amond had a spell Paços de Ferreira but the most successful Irish exports remain Mickey Walsh, who won back-to-back titles with Porto in 1985 and 1986, and Phil Babb, who won the league and cup double with Sporting Lisbon in 2002. Athlone Town’s Portuguese manager Dario Castelo has made the reverse journey.

Portugal won the European Championships in 2016 and the inaugural Nations League in 2019. Since January 2023 the Seleção have been managed by Roberto Martínez, who spent the previous six years in charge of Belgium’s “golden generation”, during which time he conspicuously failed to win any actual gold, with his tenure ending following an embarrassing group stage exit at the 2022 World Cup.

In perhaps the greatest example of failing upwards in modern international football, weeks later Martínez was announced as the new manager of Portugal. Ironically at Euro 2020 Martínez had ended Portugal’s reign as European champions, overseeing Belgium’s 1-0 victory over them in the round of 16. Martínez has made an excellent start with Portugal, who are the only team to qualify for Euro 2024 with a flawless record having won all 10 qualifiers, benefiting from having both the competition’s most potent attack (36 goals scored) and the meanest defence (2 goals conceded), which remarkably is still marshalled by the evergreen 41-year-old Pepe.

Unsurprisingly this outstanding form makes Portugal one of the favourites to win Euro 2024. However, nobody expects similar success at club level any time soon for reasons that have little to do with football. Portugal’s most successful club are Benfica, who won the European Cup in 1961 and 1962, only to see their brilliant coach Béla Guttmann dramatically quit having been denied a pay rise before declaring “not in 100 years will Benfica ever be European Champions again”. Suitably jinxed, Benfica were transformed into Portugal’s version of the Mayo football team, qualifying for eight European finals since Guttmann departed and losing all of them, with his curse still having nearly four decades to run.