Cry Not For Portugal: Euro 2012 Another Success For The Little Country That Could

DONETSK, UKRAINE - JUNE 27: Coach Paulo Bento of Portugal gives a team talk during the UEFA EURO 2012 semi final match between Portugal and Spain at Donbass Arena on June 27, 2012 in Donetsk, Ukraine. (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)

Portugal didn't fall short again. Really, it somehow managed to do the improbable, something it has made a habit of doing for more than a decade now.

"Portugal fails again! Cristiano Ronaldo doesn't take a penalty and the best country without a major tournament trophy crashes out in the semifinals of Euro 2012!"

If we rewrote that with a modicum of perspective it would read: Portugal, incredibly, made another deep run in a major tournament, continuing to overachieve and defy all odds or common sense.

It is easy to pick on Portugal, and many people have. Once again, it failed to win a trophy, this time going out in the Euro semifinals on penalties. Spain edged them from the spot, 4-2, while Ronaldo watched on waiting to take a fifth kick that would never come. The country of Eusébio, Luís Figo, Rui Costa and now Ronaldo fell short once again.

But did Portugal really fall short? Fall short of what expectation? The expectation that a country of 10,000,000 should compete with the likes of Spain, which has a population of 47,000,000? That it should produce as many quality players as 60,000,000 Italians or 81,000,000 Germans?

Portugal has the population of Belgium or Hungary, yet the world expects infinitely more of it. That is a testament not to a team of misfortune and disappointment, as one would think in the aftermath of its loss to Spain, but one of tremendous overachievement and accomplishment.


Related: Cristiano Ronaldo, Paulo Bento, And The Optimal Penalty Shootout Order

In the last 12 years, Portugal has done the seemingly impossible. It has become a legitimate world power in a small country with a small population and without a national league that ranks among the world's best. That it is where it is now, an undoubted top 10 team in the world that tournament after tournament is considered a lock to outperform countries with three, four and fives times its resources, is remarkable.

Before 1984, Portugal had only once qualified for both the World Cup and the European Championships. It pulled a shocker at the 1966 World Cup, then did so again by going to the semifinals at Euro 1984, but it did so by winning just one match in the Euros. And when it qualified for the World Cup in 1986, it went out in the first round, winning just one match.

Nobody raised a stink, wondering about the underachieving Portuguese who failed to qualify for most tournaments and struggled to win when they did qualify, because a small country of 10,000,000 people isn't supposed to do much. It struggled, needing the World Cup to expand to 24 teams in 1982 just to qualify for 1986, and it was considered normal.

Normalcy continued until 1996, the next time Portugal qualified for a World Cup or European Championship. It qualified for the quarterfinals that time around, a major achievement and the start of what would be a shift in both performance and expectations in Portuguese football.

Portugal's "Golden Generation" began to come about in 1996, with Figo, Costa, Paulo Sousa, Joao Pinto and Fernando Couto starting on that team. While it did not qualify for the 1998 World Cup, it went to the semifinals of Euro 2000, qualified for the 2002 World Cup and was runners up at Euro 2004, which it hosted.

Euro 2004 brought about a major upgrade in stadia in Portugal, further revolutionizing the game in the country and the success continued. It went to the semifinals at the 2006 World Cup, the quarterfinals at Euro 2008 and back to the knockout stages at the 2010 World Cup before reaching the semifinals this month in Poland/Ukraine.

The "Golden Generation" changed things in Portugal, with Figo, Costa, Sousa, Pinto and Couto leading the way, but also joined or eventually replaced by Pauleta, Deco, Pepe, Simao, Ronaldo, Joao Moutinho and Nani along the way. It was a complete revolution in Portuguese football that took it from what it should be and had been for decades into a world power that looks completely out of place, especially when seen next to the vast resources its competition can wield.

Now Portugal has come up short again, losing to Spain in penalties. It lost to the reigning World Cup and Euro champions after playing nearly a virtually even 120 minutes in a major semifinal.

Along the way, Portugal gave Germany arguably its toughest match of the tournament and beat Denmark, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic. People like to marvel at what the Dutch do in a small country without a power league, but the Netherlands has 50 percent more people than Portugal, with every resource that Portugal possesses and then some. Yet here Portugal, are considered disappointments after yet another semifinal.

Portugal has become a favorite whipping boy for the media and fans around the world. Part of that is because of the spotlight that comes with having a true world superstar in Figo and now Ronaldo. Transcendent players bring on high expectations, ones that are usually unrealistically high. That Ronaldo is hardly the most beloved of superstars doesn't make things easier on Portugal, nor does having Pepe and the diving and the whining for which the team has become famous.

There are a lot of reasons that fans wonder why Portugal can't win a trophy and a lot of reasons why people root against them. But there are also a lot of reasons to think that what the Portuguese have done for more than a decade now is simply mind blowing, and each time it finds its way back to a knockout stage, we'd do well to remember it. The norm is, or should be, the decades preceding 1996, but its sensational play since has made the public forget that.

A country of 10,000,000 people played the defending World Cup and Euro champions to a dead draw for 120 minutes. They were not lucky, but actually played them toe-to-toe. It took on a country with infinitely more resources in a round and on a stage that countries with the same sort of resources as Spain only dream of making. It did not fail and it did not choke, no matter where Ronaldo stood when Cesc Fabregas' penalty hit the net and eliminated them. Once again, Portugal did the incredible, as it has somehow managed to do time and time again for more than a spectacular decade now.

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