The national side is struggling to qualify for next summer’s World Cup

By Pedro Pinto in Lisbon
June 2009. It’s injury time in Tirana and, with the score at 1-1, Portugal know that they are effectively on the brink of elimination from the 2010 World Cup.

Another long ball is floated into Albania’s penalty area and, as the goalkeeper fails to hold the ball, Porto centre-back Bruno Alves appears at the back post to head in, cueing wild celebrations on the visitors’ bench. It’s as if they have just beaten Brazil in the World Cup Final.

How the mighty have fallen. The Euro 2004 Final seems like a distant memory. The glory days of Luiz Felipe Scolari’s reign are over and this is a team looking for a new identity and desperately aiming to regain its winning touch.

With one win in their opening five World Cup qualifiers, anything but a victory against Albania would have left Portugal with virtually no hope of qualifying. The team now
find themselves in third place in the Group One standings, behind Denmark and Hungary, and level on points with Sweden.

Considering the team’s success in the previous four years, this predicament is unthinkable. After all, this is a country which reached the Final of Euro 2004 and the semi-finals of the World Cup two years later. Plus, this is a team boasting the talents of the world player of the year, Cristiano Ronaldo, plus other stars of European football such as Ricardo Carvalho, Nani and Ricardo Quaresma.

However, a closer look at the developments which followed Scolari’s departure tells a story of transition and a lack of identity that has made Carlos Queiroz’s job as coach challenging in many ways.

Portugal’s downfall began with the retirement of Luis Figo. More than a world-class footballer, the winger was the side’s most inspirational and influential player over the last decade. Even if, in his final games with the national team, he lacked the pace that once made him unstoppable, Figo was still the man everyone looked for when searching for solutions on the pitch. And nine times out of 10, he would deliver.

Queiroz has struggled
As if losing their most influential playmaker wasn’t enough, Portugal also had to make do without their top scorer of all time, Pauleta. Although ineffective in major tournament finals, the Azorean was deadly in qualifying. He racked up 47 goals in 88 games over nine years and gave the national team crucial victories all over Europe. Since Pauleta retired, Queiroz has struggled to find a replacement – Nuno Gomes is past his best, while Hugo Almeida has yet to hit his stride at international level.

Last but not least, there was the impact that Scolari’s departure had on the squad. Many criticised the Brazilian for a lack of tactical expertise and his reluctance to experiment with new formations, but Big Phil was still a great motivator and a genuine leader. Players like Ronaldo saw him as a second father, and his ability to keep his top stars focused and committed cannot be underestimated.

So although that injury-time winner against Albania kept Portuguese hopes of qualifying alive, there are still many challenges ahead for a nation trying to avoid the prospect of sitting out the 2010 World Cup. There are four matches left and all must be won if Ronaldo and co are to book their tickets to South Africa.