by Christopher Stout
Portugal has simply glided into the tournament. The No. 10-ranked team in the world won nine of their 12 qualifying matches. Portugal scored more goals than any other European team. They dominated the light competition of Group Three, a group that included Slovakia and Russia.
When Portugal took home the FIFA World Youth Championship in 1991, it created hopes for a new era of Portuguese competitiveness on the international stage. The standout performances of Luis Figo and Rui Costa, both products of Portugal's famous youth academy, seemed to guarantee future success for the national squad. Although Portugal did reach the semifinals in the 2000 UEFA European Championship, their first round exit in the 2002 World Cup was seen as a huge disappointment.
Still, Portugal bounced back and reached the final of the 2004 Euro Cup. Greece walked away with the championship, but the Portuguese national team appears to have been rejuvenated by this recent accomplishment.
Portugal is making only its fourth World Cup appearance. Since reaching the final four in 1966, the team has not advanced past the group stage. Coached by the experienced Brazilian Luiz Felipe Scolari, Portugal is primed for its best World Cup performance in decades.
Luis Figo is a staple of Portuguese soccer. Figo was the 2000 European Footballer of the Year and the 2001 FIFA World Player of the Year. Figo has played as a midfielder and a winger, and is known for his excellent crosses and exceptional dribbling skills. Figo, who currently plays for Inter Milan, has scored more than 30 goals in more than 100 career caps, but it's his assists that have made him legendary.
In 2000, Figo transferred from Barcelona to archrival Real Madrid for a record $56 million. This transfer upset many Barcelona fans and during the 2004 Euro Cup final against Greece. A Barca fan actually stormed the field and pelted Figo with a FC Barcelona rag. In 2004, Figo announced that he was taking a break from international play, but Portugal's coach convinced the superstar to rejoin the national team. 2006 will likely be the final World Cup for the Portuguese legend.
Pedro Miguel Carreiro Resendes, known simply as Pauleta, scored 10 goals during the qualifying campaign of the 2002 World Cup. In 2006, Pauleta was Europe's top scorer in World Cup qualifying. He led the Portuguese attack with 11 goals. Pauleta has preformed well for his country on the international stage, putting in memorable performances in the 2000 and 2004 Euro Cup, as well as the 2002 World Cup. Widely viewed as Portugal's leading striker, Pauleta became Portugal's all-time leading scorer on Oct. 12, 2005 (surpassing Eusebio's previous record of 41 goals). He will look to add to that total in Germany.
Ricardo Carvalho is a solid defender who plays for Chelsea F.C. Before signing with Chelsea, Carvalho made a splash in Portugal's Superliga and the UEFA Champions League. His team at the time, Porto, won both of those titles in 2003-2004. Carvalho was voted Best Defender in the Champions League for 2003-2004. In the 2004 Euro Cup, his defense was extraordinary, and it prompted a big payday from Chelsea. Carvalho is the anchor of Portugal's rock-solid defense.
Cristiano Ronaldo is Portugal's superstar wingman of the future. "The other Ronaldo", as some people call him, was named FIFPro Special Young Player of the Year in 2005, an award that is decided strictly by fan votes. Supposedly named for American President Ronald Regan, Ronaldo plays his football for Manchester United, having played previously for the Portuguese team Sporting Lisbon. Ronaldo made his first appearance for the national team in 2003. He made his presence felt in the 2004 Euro Cup, and he represented Portugal in the 2004 Olympic games. Ronaldo's style of play is flashy to say the least. His exciting dribbling tricks have impressed some, and brought criticism from others. 2006 could be a breakout year for this upstart superstar.
Portugal World Cup 2006 Odds: Bodog lists the odds of Portugal winning the World Cup at 18/1. The Portuguese are 10/11 favorites to win Group D, a group that includes Mexico, Iran, and Angola.
Strengths: Portugal has a strong midfield and capable strikers. A solid defense makes this squad a well-rounded team.
Weaknesses: If there is a weakness, it has to be goalkeeping. Fans would like to see Victor Baia back in the box.
Portugal World Cup 2006 Outlook: Can the old guard gel with the younger stars? If the squad can stay cohesive, Portugal should make it to the elimination rounds. Round two will not be easy though, as Portugal is expected to be paired with either Argentina or the Netherlands.