The World Cup’s perennial dark horses go into this year’s competition boasting one of the most talented squads they have ever taken to a major competition. A delightful blend of youthful flair, pace and exuberance coupled with seasoned, experienced veterans of the game has prompted many of the Portuguese faithful to have high hopes ahead of this summer’s World Cup. Yet, despite the newfound influx of phenomenally talented youngsters, Portugal’s centre-back crisis has cast an unsettling dark shadow over the reigning European Champions’ chances.
In Portugal’s most recent friendlies versus Egypt and the Netherlands, Fernando Santos opted for José Fonte, Bruno Alves, Luís Neto and Rolando. Not only have each of them struggled for regular game time at their respective clubs, but they also have a combined age of 129. Their aging limbs and lack of match-fitness made for unpleasant viewing–particularly against the Dutch, where their lack of cohesion, understanding and sharpness saw them concede three criminal goals in the first half and manifested a widespread sense of fright amongst the most devout Seleção fans.
Fernando Santos released his 35-man provisional squad on Monday evening and there was an air of expectation surrounding the centre-back position in the hope there was at least one fresh face. Unfortunately, though – Santos disappointed the hopefuls. Instead, he opted for Bruno Alves (36), Pepe (35), José Fonte (34), Luís Neto (29), Rolando (32) and Rúben Dias (20) – leaving behind the likes of Paulo Oliveira, Pedro Mendes and Rúben Vezo – all of whom have enjoyed impressive campaigns in their respective leagues.
Of the centre-backs who received a call-up, José Fonte is perhaps the sole representative to have performed admirably whenever he’s taken to the pitch for the reigning European Champions. In spite of this, Fonte’s current situation does not bode particularly well for his fortunes on the pitch this summer. An injury plagued season followed by a questionable move to the Chinese Super League has seen the birth of countless question marks surrounding his fitness and his abilities, especially against the world’s elite. Should his fitness prevail, however, I have no doubt that his inclusion this summer is a certainty. Not only this, but at this moment in time, he’s the most likely of all of the Portuguese centre-backs to start alongside Pepe – a reality that perhaps epitomises the scarcity of quality options in this position.
Bruno Alves — like José Fonte — is a favourite of Fernando Santos and despite enduring an injury plagued season coupled with various below-par performances, his inclusion is all but guaranteed. Though, at thirty-six, it comes as no surprise that his ageing limbs would render Portugal vulnerable against any opposition that boast pace in their ranks.
Yet, particularly against lesser opposition, Alves’ experience and wit wouldn’t necessarily make for uncomfortable viewing. That being said, if Portugal want to progress to the latter stages of this summer’s World Cup, fielding a 36-year-old centre-back plying his trade intermittently in the Scottish Premiership League doesn’t augur particularly well for the European Champions.
Pepe is undoubtedly Portugal’s best centre-back, despite being 35-years-old himself. In the Seleção’s recent friendlies, his absence was all too noticeable. Pepe, now plying his trade at Besiktas, has been one of the pillars of Portugal’s team over the last decade or so – cementing himself as an undisputed starter throughout that tenure. Eyebrows were raised when he opted for a move to Turkey. Yet – injuries aside – Pepe’s season in the Super Lig has been encouraging. With that being said, the tenacious centre- back’s form and fitness is perhaps now more essential to Portugal’s chances at a major tournament than it has ever been.
Stubborn or intelligent?
Indeed, given the combined age of the three-aforementioned centre-backs who are guaranteed a call-up amounts to an alarming 105 – it’s unsurprising that experts and fans alike are perplexed by Santos’ hesitance to inject youth into the centre-back position. For those who follow Portuguese football religiously, though, it’s hardly surprising. Since taking over the reins of Portugal, Santos has called up numerous players (centre-backs in particular) who most would deem as ‘old’ or ‘past it’.
Yet, despite being infamous for inculcating old blood instead of young blood and receiving no-end of torment for it, Fernando Santos won Portugal their first ever major trophy with a squad that is arguably less talented that the one they currently possess. Questioning his methods after cementing himself as a national hero by achieving the unachievable would be foolish, right? We will have to wait and see. One could argue that Fernando Santos has given the Portuguese faithful no reason to dispute his resolutions on the back of an almost faultless tenure with the Seleção, while the other could stress that the birth of his ‘untouchable’ status coupled with his stubbornness could harm the European Champions’ chances this summer.
Why the dearth of options?
The gap in quality that’s prevalent amongst the ‘big three’ and the remaining clubs that participate in the Liga NOS is dumbfounding. That being said, if and when these young centre-backs aren’t deemed good enough or ready to break into the starting eleven of the aforementioned big three, they often find it particularly arduous adapting to the clubs they are loaned or sold to as they style they have been accustomed to from a young age is a thing of the past as soon as they move elsewhere.
The most recent exception to this anomaly is Benfica’s Rúben Dias. Dias has been a revelation for Benfica this season, cementing himself as an undisputed starter after countless admirable displays in the Liga NOS. His courageous outings have prompted many
in Portugal to call for him to start alongside Pepe this summer, despite this being his debut season in first-team football and with no international caps under his belt.
The 20-year-old’s playing style is somewhat limited and some have even suggested that his lack of technical prowess on the ball render him a liability. Fortunately, though, Fernando Santos does not demand the Seleção centre-backs to instigate attacks with penetrating, intricate balls. That being said, Dias’ no-nonsense, rugged approach to the game coupled with his aerial dominance will be a breath of fresh air for Portugal should he be included in Portugal’s 23-man-squad when it’s announced on Thursday.
What awaits Portugal this summer?
As previously iterated, Portugal having one of, if the most talented squad they have ever taken to a major tournament. With the likes of Bernardo Silva, Gonçalo Guedes, Cristiano Ronaldo and André Silva leading the line for Seleção das Quinas, the possibilities are endless. Yet, what remains to be seen is how the creaking limbs of their ancient centre-backs cope against the world’s elite.
By: Marino Peixoto.