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Portugal’s World Cup Journey: It could have been different…

Portugal’s World Cup Journey: It could have been different…

Portugal were left thinking what could have been after crashing out of the 2018 World Cup in the round of 16, marking a third consecutive year that the nation failed to reach the quarter finals of the biggest event in world football.

Gripped by World-Cup fever and off the back of the Euros triumph in 2016, Portugal’s World Cup started in dramatic fashion, after an enthralling 3-3 draw was played out versus neighbours, rivals, and previous World Champions Spain. Such a showing no doubt increased optimism within the nation even further, truly emphasising that Portugal had the ability to compete with the very best in the world and did not intend to be there simply to make up the numbers.

That spectacle, followed by a nervy 1-0 victory over an impressive Morocco side and a frustrating 1-1 draw with Iran, sealed Portugal’s passage to the next round in 2nd place in the group, behind Spain by virtue of a single goal.

That set up an enthralling encounter against a well-drilled and highly talented Uruguay side, a match Portugal went on to lose 2-1, sending the Seleção home and, with it, crushing the national dream.

The lingering sense of what could have been

In truth, Portugal weren’t close; even if they had managed to get past Uruguay, a quarter-final tie, and rematch, with a revitalized French side was what awaited them, followed by a clash with one of either Brazil or Belgium in the semi-final even if Portugal did emerge victorious against France for a second time in a row on the international stage. As such, Portugal’s route to the final was paved with formidable opposition, and success looked highly improbable as soon as the final sixteen sides left in the tournament were revealed.

Yet, despite Portugal’s trip to Russia ending before it had barely started, many nationals may well be left wondering what could have been, all because of the events which transpired on the 25th June 2018, when Portugal took on Carlos Queiroz’s resilient Iran.

Portugal went into the match knowing that a draw would guarantee them a place in the World Cup round of 16, while a score that bettered Spain’s result versus Morocco would have sealed Portugal’s progression into the next round of the competition as group winners.

Having played out an enticing 90 minutes in both the Portugal and Spain match, thus heading into the last few minutes of stoppage time in each, Portugal found themselves 1-0 up against Iran, while Spain were 2-1 down to already eliminated Morocco.

Portugal were thus cruising into the next round as group winners and, with only the improbable event of both Portugal conceding AND Spain scoring in the dying minutes denying Portugal of top spot, looked set to be facing hosts Russia in the next round.

The improbable turnaround that became a realitty

Yet, seemingly in a heartbeat, everything suddenly seemed to start spiralling out of control in both matches virtually simultaneously; with Spain putting the ball in the back of the net in the 91st minute - only to see the flag raised for offside - and the Portugal match temporarily postponed amid an appeal for a Cedric Soares handball in the penalty box in the 92nd minute, things became unexpectedly tense for the European champions.

Time appeared to stand still as drama relentlessly ensued in both matches concurrently, without a ball even being kicked. The events unfolding, while occurring literally thousands of kilometres apart, had the potential to have an indisputable impact on one another and the future World Cup prospects of the top two nations in the group, who were both entirely embroiled in the chaos.

In a matter of seconds, literally from one moment to the next, the unthinkable became imminent, unfolding in front of our very eyes; Video Assistant Referee (VAR) checks were being carried out in both matches at the same time, with footballing matters halted for dozens of seconds as Iago Aspas’ goal for Spain was reviewed for offside and Cedric’s inadvertent handball analysed repeatedly in search of a penalty.

With Spain’s goal correctly awarded in Kaliningrad - with goalscorer Aspas marginally played onside - 1,900km away in Saransk, Paraguayan referee Enrique Cáceres was ushered over to the screen at the side of the pitch to review the incident that had occurred in Portugal’s box which, upon reflection, he deemed worthy of an Iranian penalty.

Having been leading 1-0 for over 45 minutes, and with Spain trailing 2-1 to a resilient Morocco side, Portugal had suddenly been pegged back to 1-1 after Karim Ansarifard converted Iran’s penalty - just as Spain themselves managed to pull things back to level terms, sealing Portugal’s fate as only the 2nd place team in Group B.

Manager Fernando Santos was himself not overly concerned about giving up top spot, stating that “The most important thing was to advance [to the next round], and we advanced.” Santos may have been content, although looking at how the World Cup was developing, it was difficult to accept how Portugal's firm grip on 1st place was so dramatically lost.

This was especially the case because of the manner in which Portugal won the Euros just two years earlier; having finished third in a group containing Iceland, Hungary and Austria, many would have been forgiven for writing off Portugal as contenders for the overall title. However, because of how the draw was developing, finishing third in the group was actually arguably the most important aspect in allowing Portugal to advance all the way to the final and win the trophy.

Indeed, the 94th minute winner that Iceland scored against Austria which led to Portugal being overtaken and pushed to third in the table may as well have been celebrated as triumphantly as any goal Portugal managed to score themselves all tournament.

This is because Iceland’s historic goal – marking their first ever victory in a major tournament – also meant Portugal were subsequently placed on the side of the bracket in the next round containing Croatia, Poland, Switzerland, Belgium, Hungary, Wales and Northern Ireland; with the greatest of respect to all those nations, no heavyweights of international football were there, meaning Portugal could avoid playing any previous tournament winners and more-fancied nations until the final on July 10th.

Comparably, the other side of the bracket was stacked with many of the more prestigious sides in international football, including Germany, Spain, France, Italy and England. As such, Portugal’s route to the final was paved well before they even kicked another ball, and they made the most of the advantageous nature in which the draw opened up, going on to beat France in the final after seeing off Croatia, Poland and Wales to get there.

The difference between first and second in the World Cup group this time around seemed equally important; many will argue that there is no such thing as an easy draw at the World Cup, although when you compare how the two brackets leading to the final were developing, it would be difficult to argue that the calibre of opposition was ever the same standard.

By finishing 2nd, Portugal were on the same side of the draw as 5-time champions Brazil, 1998 winners France, Lionel Messi's Argentina and a highly fancied Belgian side, in addition to the 1930 and 1950 victors Uruguay, the German destroyers Mexico, and a resilient outfit in Japan.

On the other hand, had they topped the group, Portugal would have avoided the vast majority of the favourites until the final, instead facing Russia in the round of 16, Croatia in the quarter-finals (if they were victorious in their clash with the hosts), and then one of Sweden, Switzerland, England and Colombia in the semi-finals. By no means an easy route, but undeniably a far more favourable run to the final.

It is interesting to think what could have been for Portugal had VAR not been introduced in this edition of the competition, or if Cáceres had not awarded a questionable penalty to Iran in the dying minutes of Portugal’s final group game. Indeed, either scenario would have led to Portugal topping the group and entering the other side of the bracket, which no doubt would have given Portugal an increased chance of a longer stay in Russia and the chance to fight it out for World Cup glory for the first time in the nation's history.

Nevertheless, it’s onto the next one for Portugal, who kick off their UEFA Nations League campaign on 10th September, where they take on Italy in Lisbon as they bid to become the inaugural champions of the newest tournament the continent has to offer.

Portugal's Primeira Liga ranked seventh in UEFA coefficient, behind Russia.

Portugal's Primeira Liga ranked seventh in UEFA coefficient, behind Russia.