Appearing oblivious to the danger of tempting fate the FAI recently launched a new ‘Our Time is Now’ slogan. The first visitors to stress test this boast are a Portugal team captained by a star player whose time it always appears to be.
Describing Ronaldo as a mere star is a gross underestimation of a man who received a significant astrological promotion in 2015 when an entire galaxy (the ‘Cosmos Redshift 7’) was named after him. Ronaldo returns to Dublin where he made his Real Madrid debut at Tallaght Stadium in 2009 following a then world record £80 million transfer from Manchester United.
Although he has rarely set foot in the country since, Ronaldo retained one valuable link with Ireland by using a Dublin company to manage his earnings from image rights. In his last two internationals Ronaldo has scored four goals - one fewer than Ireland's number seven Callum Robinson. This leaves Ronaldo in the unusual position of being the deadliest goal scorer international football has ever seen whilst simultaneously lying only second in the 'CR7 form table' behind an Irish striker playing in the Championship for WBA.
The global box office appeal of Ronaldo is so overwhelming that when he does not play opposition fans are often left more disappointed than his own teams supporters. In 2019 a group of South Korean fans instituted legal proceedings for “mental anguish” after he was left out of the Juventus team for a pre-season friendly in Seoul.
Portugal won the European Championships in 2016 and the inaugural Nations League in 2019 but have a surprisingly average World Cup record. A first qualification only arrived in 1966 inspired by captain Mário Coluna and striker Eusébio both of whom were born in Mozambique.
At Goodison Park they featured in the most remarkable quarter-final in history when trailing North Korea 3-0 they recovered to win 5-3 with Eusébio scoring four of the nine goals that would secure him the Golden Boot. Portugal made it to the semi-finals where they were edged out 2-1 by hosts England but following this remarkable tournament debut Portugal did not qualify again until 1986 and waited until 2006 for their only other semi-final appearance.
2002 World Cup
Ireland and Portugal have only been in the same World Cup qualifying group once before playing out a pair of 1-1 draws that enabled both countries to progress to the 2002 finals at the expense of Holland. Both countries took a more relaxed 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 declined Ireland were invited to compete but refused as the FAI believed that the £2,700 cost of travelling to Brazil would bankrupt them.
Irish supporters of a certain vintage still hold Portuguese referee Raul Nazare responsible for our failure to qualify for the 1982 World Cup on goal difference. Playing a crucial qualifier away to Belgium, Nazare disallowed a Frank Stapleton goal for reasons that four decades on remain inexplicable.
Ireland might be on the brink of completing an unwelcome double by missing out to Portugal for both the 2022 and the 2030 World Cups with Uefa believed to favour the joint bid of Portugal and Spain over that of the UK and Ireland as Europe’s candidate to host the 2030 tournament.
Portugal’s only obvious weakness is an occasional tendency to overreact under pressure. When his stoppage time winner was wrongly disallowed against Serbia in March Ronaldo angrily threw his captains armband to the floor before storming off the Belgrade pitch without bothering to wait for the final whistle. An enterprising fireman quickly recovered the armband later selling it for €64,000 at a charity auction.
A more serious meltdown occurred in the semi-final of Euro 2000 when a handball by Abel Xavier enabled Zinedine Zidane to score a golden-goal penalty. This triggered a mass protest by Portugal of such ferocity that Nuno Gomes was sent off and banned for eight months and Xavier and Paulo Bento suspended for nine and six months respectively. A lack of remorse didn't help the situation with Bento explaining "I didn't throw my shirt at the referee. I wanted to give it to him so that every time he looked at it, he'd remember what he did to our nation."
Portuguese domestic football is dominated by Os Três Grandes (The Big Three) who between them have won all but two league titles. The most successful club are Benfica who won the European Cup in 1961 and 1962 before becoming Portugal's version of the Mayo football team. Brilliant coach Béla Guttmann quit in a row over money declaring "not in a hundred years will Benfica ever be European Champions again." Suitably jinxed Benfica lost the European Cup Final in 1963, 1965, 1968 and 1988.
In 1990 Benfica’s journey back to the final began in Derry with Eusébio being introduced to a packed Brandywell. The Final itself took place in Vienna where Guttmann is buried so before the match Eusébio visited the grave of his former coach to ask that the curse be lifted. Benfica lost the final 1-0 to AC Milan and since Guttman quit have qualified for eight European finals and lost all of them.
In that time Porto have won two European Cups and two Europa League’s. Their most recent triumph came in the only all-Portuguese European final ever at the Aviva Stadium in 2011 when Porto beat Braga 1-0 to win the Europa League. However Uefa are allergic to sponsorship money not being paid to them so officially the match took place in the ‘Dublin Arena’ a venue that existed for one night only.
The reigning Primeira Liga champions are Sporting Lisbon. No country has won the Ballon d’Or more times than Portugal with two players developed at Sporting’s Alcochete Academy being responsible for six of their seven victories (five time winner Ronaldo and Luís Figo). Eight of the Portugal team that started the Euro 2016 Final came through Alcochete whose most outstanding recent graduate is teenager defender Nuno Mendes who in August joined PSG on loan with the option to buy set at €40 million.
Thanks to a forensic seeding system Irish and Portuguese sides rarely clash in Europe. However in 2010 Sporting Fingal played the only European tie in their 965-day existence against Marítimo in the Europa League with the Portuguese progressing on a 6-4 aggregate.
A number of Irish internationals have played in Portugal most successfully Mickey Walsh who won back-to-back titles with Porto in 1985 and 1986. Phil Babb won the league with Sporting in 2002 but in recent times the only thing Irish transferred to Lisbon on a lucrative long-term contract has been the Web Summit.
If the Portugal side that reached the final of the 2004 Euros as hosts is remembered as the ‘Golden Generation’ then the squad arriving in Dublin is very much the ‘Silva’ generation including forwards Bernardo Silva (Manchester City), Rafa Silva (Benfica) and André Silva (RB Leipzig).
Things could have been even more confusing had Portugal selected Adrien Silva (Sampdoria) whose £22 million move to Leicester City in August 2017 went wrong from the very first minute when the club missed the Fifa deadline to register him by 14 seconds. It appears that the midfielder eventually saw the funny side of it as when he finally made his long overdue Leicester debut the following January, Silva wore the number 14 shirt.
Portugal manager Fernando Santos is the fourth-longest serving national coach in Europe having been appointed in September 2014. Santos made headlines before Ireland's visit to Faro in September claiming that "we know the characteristics of these British teams" overlooking the key characteristic of a British team, namely that they be British.
Ten of the Seleção squad selected by Santos for the return trip to Dublin play in the Premier League but Spurs’ decision to sack José Mourinho in April and his successor Nuno Espírito Santo earlier this month leaves Bruno Lage at Wolves as the only Portugese manager left in England’s top flight. Espírito Santo was dismissed following a 3-0 defeat to Ole Gunner Solasker’s Manchester United in a match cruelly labelled ‘El Sackio’ highlighting the inevitable outcome for the losing manager.
Should Santos fail to qualify Portugal for the 2022 World Cup with an entire constellation of stars to pick from then he would almost certainly suffer the same fate.