by Jerrad Peters
It wasn’t pretty, but when it comes to international football, winning rarely is. At least lately. Look at last month’s Copa America as an example, or the 2010 World Cup. Neither tournament was particularly stimulating; neither showcased the sort of goals that make a competition memorable. (Think Van Basten in ‘88; Maradona in ‘86.) And yet, there were the Portuguese, celebrating a 2-0 win over a highly-skilled French side in the semifinals of the U-20 World Cup. Both goals came from set pieces in the first half; the second period was nondescript—45 minutes of slow, stop-start football designed to frustrate the opponent. Job done.
With the two goals, Portugal now have five in six matches so far in Colombia. It’s hardly an impressive tally, but it’s been enough given their five successive clean sheets. That said, no one expected them to get this far—not with the likes of France and Argentina on their side of the knockout round draw.
But they managed to beat both of them and, having done so, will face Brazil in the championship final on Saturday. It will be Portugal’s first final since Luis Figo led the Golden Generation into battle against Nigeria in 1989. They won that match 2-0 and, two years later, earned a second consecutive title after beating a Brazil side that included an 18-year-old Roberto Carlos.
This current Portuguese installment is nowhere near as gifted as the one of 20 years ago, but that’s not to say they don’t have talent, strength and leadership. It’s just in a different form. Take Danilo, for example. Where Luis Figo was the talisman of the 1989 side, you could argue that Danilo—a defensive midfielder—is the star man of the 2011 team. That, in itself, indicates a different point of focus for head coach Ilidio Vale. His best players happen to be the defensive conscience of his squad. It follows that the squad will be set up to best accommodate those strengths.
Then there’s Mika. The 20-year-old is on the books at Benfica and has been one of the most important players at this World Cup. He’s also a goalkeeper. It was his heroics against Argentina—particularly in the penalty shootout where his series of saves allowed his teammates to come back from two goals down—that propelled Portugal to victory in the quarterfinals, and the mental toughness built up from that win was on full display against France four days later.
As for leadership, Nuno Reis has provided it in spades. On loan to Cercle Brugge from Sporting Lisbon, he is not only a calming, steady presence at the heart of the defense, but an inspirational captain as well. He volunteered to take Portugal’s first penalty against Argentina, and for a centre-back it doesn’t get any gutsier than that. (His celebrations, which included giving the finger to a section of the crowd, revealed the extent to which he wears his heart on his sleeve. Like it or not, this is a player who relishes playing on the edge.)
Still, the question remains. Can Portugal actually beat Brazil and lift a third U-20 World Cup?
Similar questions were asked ahead of their matches against Argentina and France, and the answers were the same on both occasions. That’s not to say Portugal will come out and win on Saturday. Their opponents are clearly favoured and have played the most attractive football over the past three weeks.
Portugal’s football is more effective than attractive. And yet, it’s hard not to like them. They may not have an Henrique of Philippe Coutinho, but they’ve got a good thing going with Danilo, Mika, Nuno Reis and the abilities they bring to the table. They’re not a flashy bunch, but it wouldn’t be fair to say they lack ability. Maybe effectiveness is its own kind of beauty.
Follow Jerrad Peters on Twitter @peterssoccer.