Monday, June 05, 2006

#10: Seleccao das Quinas


Where? The Southwesternest point of Europe, just West of Spain.

How Big? Not too big. A little smaller than Indiana, and just smaller than South Korea. Population is about the same size as Michigan, or the Czech Republic.

Something I learned from the CIA Factbook? Well, I saw something that doesn't seem to make sense. Portugal has a pretty high migration rate (higher than any other comparably sized European nation), meaning a lot of people are emigrating to Portugal (many from Africa and Brazil). Portugal's birth rate is higher than its death rate, and Portugal has one of the lowest infant mortality rate in the world. But the overall population growth rate isn't very high. Or at least, it seems to me that it should be higher. Am I missing a factor in population growth? The age distribution doesn't seem out of the ordinary. Something else I learned was that the national holiday isn't the day they established a separate kingdom or the day they established the republic or the constitution. Nope, Portugal Day celebrates the death of the poet Luis de Camoes, who died in 1580.

Geopolitical significance? Not all that much. Portugal is a somewhat small, country and, compared to much of Europe, it has a poor educational system. In a global economy, where developing nations can undercut labor costs, a lack of ingenuity can lead to some tough economic times. I did see on the CIA site that Portugal is currently in a dispute over some territory with Spain, the dispute turning on a treaty signed in 1801 and the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Guys, if you can't work that out in 200 years, it might not ever get worked out.

Fun? Portugal is who it is today because of a bunch of dirty hippies. Sort of. Actually, I always remembered some kind of hippy t-shirt or bumper sticker or something where a bunch of hippies put flowers in soldier's guns and all of a sudden everyone wants to noodle in a field and the sky turns into Joseph's dreamcoat. Well, that sort of happened in Portugal, and I think this is the weirdest military coup on earth. From the early 1930s to the mid-1970s, Portugal had been ruled by an authoritarian/semi-fascist regime called the Estado Novo. One of the main goals of the Estado Novo was to maintain and keep the Portuguese colonies, which had lasted a while longer than pretty much any other European nation. The required military conscriptions placed a heavy burden on youths, and in time a significant anti-establishment movement had developed within the military. In 1974, leftist army officers started a coup. First ridiculous thing: the "secret signal" to start the coup was the first playing on state TV of Portugal's entry in the Eurovision Song Contest (hopefully the same is true of Lordi). The leftists announced the coup and encouraged civilians to stay at home. The people didn't though, and flooded the streets in support of the insurgents. One of the places where the revolutionaries met the people was the March of Flowers in Lisbon. There, many of the civilians and the rebels placed carnations in their gun barrels, which became the symbol of the revolution. Amazingly, it worked, as other military personnel did little to stop the revolt. Shortly thereafter, the Portuguese government became a liberal democracy with free-ish elections and the colonial system was given up for good. Basically, if not for those flowers, Portugal could have been a totally different country (and Spain and Greece might also have held on to their repressive regimes longer too). Oh, and Portugal makes delicious dessert wines.


Portugal should be one of the more interesting teams in the Cup this year. The roster is filled up with a few aging veterans from what was considered the Golden Generation, but now it seems like there's been a youth movement for Portugal, and the bulk of the starting positions will be filled by younger players and those just now hitting their prime (but who laid in wait while Rui Costa, Couto, and Baia were dominating the lineups).

Portuguese soccer history is much much less vaunted than one would think. Portugal only qualified for one World Cup prior to 1986: the 1966 team that finished third. In fact, this is only Portugal's fourth World Cup Finals, having bowed out in the first round of both the 1986 and 2002 Cups. 1966 was a tremendous accomplishment, led by one of the all-time greats of soccer, Eusebio. But 2002 was an especially disappointing result. Pegged by many as one of the favorites of the tournament (with the "Golden Generation" hitting their prime), they gave up three goals to the USA in the first 36 minutes of the first game. Stunning, still to this day. Portugal came back with two goals in that match, and pounded Poland in the second match. Park Ji-Sung's second half goal in the Korea match held up, though, and Portugal headed home to a brutal and unforgiving press. Portugal has had significantly more success in the European Championship, going from quarterfinalists, to semifinalists, to runners up (in another stunning match against Greece) in successive tournaments.

Qualifying for this cup was a bit easier than ever before. The only other team in the qualifying group with a sniff of Cup Finals experience was Russia, and there were 4 bad minnows in the group. Portugal established the alpha dog position with a 7-1 pounding of Russia early on in qualifying. The Five Shields didn't lose a match and only drew three, topping the group. They were +30 on goal differential (which should give you a taste of how weak the group was).

The team itself has been on the rise for the last decade, and even with the international retirement/non-selection of several of the veterans, Portugal is considered by many to be continually improving. The roster is made up with players based all over Europe's top leagues, including Portugal, which is just below the top professional leagues (and might be as good as the Eredivise in Holland).

The face of the team is Luis Figo, one of the few remaining Golden Generation players. While nobody's confusing him with his genius of 5-6 years ago, he's been pretty good for Inter Milan (at least better than people thought). Simao Sabrosa joins him in what might be the best midfield in the Cup (along with two others I'll mention in a second). The aging Pauleta is the scorer up front.

But there are two ones to watch: Deco and Cristiano Ronaldo. Deco is an incredible playmaker, but also possesses truly elite fundamentals. His tackling is solid, and he can keep control of the ball well, both abnormal attributes of an attacker. And on attacking he's a great improvisor as well as playmaker. Expect him to be involved in many goals. Ronaldo, on the other hand, is making his international debut. He's yound and excitable, but has a keen knack for knowing exactly where to go. He plays on the wing, but expect to see him up front as much as Pauleta. He might be one of the leading scorers in the entire cup.

The group did great favors for Portugal, even though they weren't seeded (in my opinion, they didn't necessarily deserve a seed, but moreso than Mexico). They open with a historic matchup against their former colony Angola, one of the worst teams in the cup, and then play Iran and Mexico. Most think the Mexico matchup will really just decide between first and second, but not me. I think that might be an elimination match.

The opener against Angola will mean more for the debutantes than for Portugal. Truly, if Portugal doesn't give up three first half goals, I bet most Portuguese will be happy. And I think they will be, as Ronaldo nets two in the first 20 minutes, and Pauleta finishes one late for a 3-0 win.

The second match is where hubris might play a role. An early goal by Iran stuns many. Portugal doesn't fall apart, in part due to Figo's presence. They equalize in the second half and hold on for a 1-1 win.

The final match against Mexico turns out to be a scarier affair than most wanted it to be. A win or a draw means Portugal advances, probably winning the group. A loss, however, and they could be out of the tournament entirely. Mexico, on the other hand, needs to win because of goal differential. They push forward early, and it costs them, as Ronaldo scores on the counter. Mexico doesn't give up, and ties it up just after halftime. Both teams suffer from tense moments, as Iran appears to be taking care of business, meaning one of these teams is going home. After some nice possession play by Portugal, Figo is fouled just outside the box. He takes the set piece and buries it. 2-1 Portugal, and they move on in first place in the group.

Unfortunately, first place in the group means facing the second place team in Group C, the Netherlands. This round of 16 game should be one of the most entertaining matches because of both teams' abilities in the midfield. Deco and Ronaldo work together to score first, but Van Nistelrooy matches the score with a great goal. Both teams threaten, but neither scores through extra time. The aging van der Sar makes two incredible saves in the first three, and the Dutch scorers do what they do best. Holland advances, Portugal are left wondering.

While they don't make a run (though capable of doing so), Portugal will have a good cup. Topping the group will put aside memories of 2002, and losing to the Dutch or Argentines is nothing to be ashamed of. Portugal will be back again in 2010, and might even be stronger still.

If the World Cup were March Madness, Portugal would be... a recently emerging power in a top conference with one great stunning moment in its history, but not too much until lately. Also they're known for skill in ball handling and scoring. Villanova it is.

Damn dirty hippies.