Despite their quality, this was always going to be a tough ask for Portugal. Every decently organized team is, and always has been.
The difference between Portugal and Germany – both shot through with continental stars – is that the Germans play as a team. The Portuguese play as if they are 11 guys who just met 10 minutes before the start of the game, and quickly decided they don’t like each other very much.
From the off, the Portuguese were into it. And by “into it,” I mean with each other.
After every move, at least one Portuguese player could be seen on the periphery, making an embarrassing show of himself, further winding up his own teammates. Everybody wants the ball. Nobody knows what to do when they’ve got it.
By the end, they were left flailing. A 4-0 defeat puts them in very deep water in a very deep group. Barring a great shift in competence, their World Cup is over.
Talent matters at this level. It matters more than anything. But there are countries who reliably prove that it is only one rather large jigsaw piece – Italy, Brazil and, most notably, Germany.
All three have won World Cups with substandard sides that either out-think or overawe their opponents. Reputation matters almost as much as talent here. You want people second-guessing themselves. Portugal has never given any decent team a bad night’s sleep.
Putting aside its consistent quality, Germany thrives because it can be depended upon to play smart and with 90 minutes of commitment. There is no reliable tactical defence against those two qualities.
On that basis, Portugal is the dumbest decent football team in the world. And what we are witnessing in Brazil may be the most boneheaded iteration of that squad in its history.
Two guys come in for particular shaming here.
First, Cristiano Ronaldo. On his day, he’s the best player alive. He’s also a preening and unbearable jackass. He is the appalling yin to Lionel Messi’s effervescent yang.
He may have painted his masterpiece in that regard when he tore off his shirt and went running for the cameras after scoring the fourth goal – the fourth – in a 4-1 Champions League final victory a few weeks ago. Even his teammates can hardly stand him, and he’s the one making them feted and rich.
On Monday, he was out on his favoured left flank, whining from the start. He was either shouting at his colleagues, or waving his arms disgustedly or standing stock still with hands on hips while play went on around him. In his next career, he might volunteer to handle the words “unbearable” and “arrogance” in a Dictionary of Non-Verbal Communication.
It tells you a great deal that the Portuguese consistently favoured the right side. There is no other conclusion to be reached than that his countrymen would rather they fail, as long as he fails alongside them.
But Ronaldo will not be the one getting the headlines this morning. (And even though they would have been eviscerating, that will wound him deeply.)
The tournament’s MIP (most idiotic player) is Portuguese defender Pepe.
Pepe is a despicable competitor, which wouldn’t bother you so much if he weren’t also so good. There is simply no need for an athlete of this quality to be so consistently cheat-y, fake-y, moronic and thuggish. Taken in isolation, any one of those qualities alone might make him oddly admirable (it works for guys such as Sergio Ramos and that child of God, Mario Balotelli).
Together, they comprise the coal in world football’s Christmas stocking. Pepe is the gift no team can refuse, and the one that is absolutely guaranteed to ruin your big day.
He quietly dug his own grave early. First, he was rubbish. Second, he decided to chase down Serbian referee Milorad Mazic after what was a correct penalty awarded to the Germans. That players do this sort of thing now is annoying enough. But Pepe was enraged. He so aggressively intruded on Mazic’s personal space, the Serbian roughly shoved him away. I’d never seen that before on this stage. It was shocking.
Odds are that that encounter sealed Pepe’s fate in the 37th minute. He stuck his hand up in the face of Thomas Mueller, causing the German to go down as if pole-axed (there was precious little valour to go around the pitch on both sides). Then, Pepe did something beyond stupid. He leaned down and headbutted the German as he sat on the ground.
One has to reach back to David Beckham petulantly kicking out at Argentina’s Diego Simeone at the 1998 World Cup to recall a gesture of similar self-destructiveness.
Pepe was ejected. Portugal was finished. It’s hard to say that missing him in the next game against the U.S. due to automatic suspension is a blessing or a curse.
Regardless, Pepe now ascends to a tin throne with many pretenders – the King of the Footballing Idiots.
Taken individually, Portugal is a great team. It’s proving here that great individual talent robbed of cohesion only matters to a country that aspires to be the very best at tennis or golf.