Which Portuguese XI that made an international final was the best of them all - 2004, 2016 or 2019?
Portugal have competed in 3 major international finals in their near-100 year history - but which lineup was the best of them all?
Portugal’s run to the final in Euro 2004 was not particularly surprising what with Portugal acting as hosts in that edition of the tournament - more surprising was that they went on to lose their sixth and final match of the competition against Greece 1-0, breaking Portuguese hearts and ending the optimism of ending their eternal trophy drought.
However, it was undoubtedly still an impressive side containing a wide variety of top quality players including Luis Figo, Deco, Rui Costa and a young Cristiano Ronaldo, among several others.
It was widely regarded as Portugal’s “Golden Generation” at the time, with many perhaps not anticipating a group of equally capable players cropping up simultaneously in the future considering the relevant size of the nation, and the fact that they couldn’t get across the line on home turf was therefore hugely disappointing.
However, they then reached the final in Euro 2016, that tournament still very fresh in the minds of Portugal fans across the globe after a surprise victory in France against the hosts in the final.
That group of players were strong, there’s no doubt about that, with a great deal of talent from 1 all the way to 11. At the same time though, there perhaps weren’t any real superstars in the team - bar Ronaldo, of course. Some excellent talents, such as the veterans that were Nani and Quaresma, as well as the experienced Joao Moutinho alongside an effective midfield with William Carvalho, Joao Mario and Adrien Silva, but you could argue that none of those players are superstars.
It was therefore a team built upon being incredibly efficient, ensuring they were constantly a compact, organised and well-oiled unit out of possession, working in perfect harmony to ensure they were tight at the back and able to frustrate their opponents. And for that hard-work and tenacity, they deserve enormous credit. With it, they were able to grind out results, drawing all three of their group stage games before then requiring extra time 3 times in the knockout rounds to lift the trophy.
It was arguably the hardest working side to ever win a European Championship. Far from the best of all time - they were the self-proclaimed “Ugly Ducklings” of the tournament after all, and there is still notable disgruntlement from potentially envious fans of other national team about how worthy the Selecao were of their triumph - but, my word, as a team they knew what they were doing, deploying Fernando Santos’ tactics in commendable fashion as their faith in him and his faith in them was clear to see.
And that brings us to 2019. Just 3 years after putting a smile on an entire nation’s face, just 9 of the players that lifted the Euros in 2016 returned to deliver more success for their country, that prestigious group joined by some fresh faces - and even some debutantes.
And some of those players have really bolstered the team. The addition of Ballon d’Or candidate Bernardo Silva was huge, the little Manchester City magician having missed the 2016 Euros through injury - in addition to in-demand Bruno Fernandes, Chelsea-linked Goncalo Guedes, Benfica teenage sensation Joao Felix, and Wolves star Diogo Jota - Jota not getting a single minute on the pitch as a result of the enormous talent in the squad as a whole.
And that’s not to mention the quality added at right back, with Nelson Semedo and Joao Cancelo the two right backs Fernando Santos called up for the Nations League finals - contrast that with three years earlier when Cedric Soares and Vieirinha were Portugal’s duo at right back for the 2016 Euros. Quite the upgrade, it could be said.
But, looking at the starting XI only, which side was the best of them all? Here’s another chance to see each of them:
Euro 2004 Final - Portugal Lineup and subs (vs Greece)
Euro 2016 Final - Portugal Lineup and subs (vs France)
Nations League 2019 Final - Portugal Lineup and subs (vs The Netherlands)
To say which is the best is not easy; after all, they all performed incredible feats. Logic would suggest that the Euro 2004 team would be the ‘worst’ as they failed to win the overall tournament, falling at the final hurdle, although that may not necessarily be the case.
After all, that 2004 team certainly had some superstars in the side; Luis Figo and Cristiano Ronaldo on the wings was quite an incredible duo with creativity and dribbling ability, while Deco was also a brilliant player in that number 10 role. And don’t forget Ricardo Carvalho at the heart of defence. There was certainly enough quality in that side to win a major tournament, even if they didn’t quite manage it.
Compare that to the attacking threat Portugal had in 2016 and you could argue that 2004 wins the battle; Nani and Cristiano started up top together that day, with the most attacking midfield players being Renato Sanches and Joao Mario - not quite the same level of attacking potency as 2004 - and that’s also overlooking the fact that talisman Ronaldo was replaced early on for Ricardo Quaresma.
But, as an overall team, for work rate and balance, you could potentially argue that 2016 just about edges 2004, even if 2004 perhaps had more quality on an individual level.
However, there seems little doubt that this latest squad, rather excitingly, is the best of them all. Staring the likes of Bernardo Silva, Goncalo Guedes and Bruno Fernandes alongside Cristiano Ronaldo gave Portugal incredible threat going forwards, while it also had superb balance to it with both Danilo Pereira and William Carvalho in midfield.
And that’s overlooking Nelson Semedo at right back, who is almost more of a wing-back every time he plays, very happy to bound forwards at every given opportunity.
And, while this article isn’t really focusing on the squad as a whole, it is worth noting that the likes of Rafa Silva, Diogo Jota and Joao Felix were also on the bench, showing that there’s strength in depth too.
So, here’s how we rank the lineups as a whole:
1. Portugal 2019 Nations League Final XI
2. Portugal Euro 2004 Final XI
3. Portugal Euro 2016 Final XI.
Now this is where it might get a bit more interesting. Above is an illustration of what we believe is the strongest combined starting XI from all three of the teams, represented by different colours depending on what tournament they played in.
Those of the outfield players that played in more than one of the international finals - those being Pepe, Raphael Guerreiro, William Carvalho and Cristiano Ronaldo - are labelled by the colour that represents what was likely the one that they performed best in on an individual level.
As you can see, we have selected 4 players from the Euro 2004 starting lineup - Ricardo Carvalho, Maniche, Deco and Luis Figo - while 3 come from the 2016 squad - Pepe, Raphael Guerreiro and Cristiano Ronaldo.
The final 4 are then from the 2019 team - Rui Patricio, Nelson Semedo, William Carvalho and Bernardo Silva. Felt strange to leave out Bruno Fernandes, who has been unbelievable this season, but ultimately opted for Maniche for perhaps a little more balance in midfield.
The 3 impact subs then selected were Rui Costa and Nuno Gomes from 2004, and Ricardo Quaresma from 2016, who just edged out Rafa Silva of the 2019 team.
What do you think of our combined XI? What would you change? Have a go at constructing your own XI and let us know who you choose in the comments below! Here are who you have to choose from:
GOALKEEPERS: Ricardo, Rui Patricio.
CENTREBACKS: Ricardo Carvalho, Jorge Andrade, Jose Fonte, Pepe, Ruben Dias.
RIGHT BACK: Miguel, Cedric Soares, Nelson Semedo.
LEFT BACK: Nuno Valente, Raphael Guerreiro.
MIDFIELDERS: Costinha, Maniche, Deco, William Carvalho, Adrien Silva, Renato Sanches, Joao Mario, Danilo Pereira, Bruno Fernandes.
FORWARDS: Luis Figo, Cristiano Ronaldo, Pauleta, Nani, Bernardo Silva, Goncalo Guedes.
IMPACT SUBS (Select 3!): Paulo Ferreira, Rui Costa, Nuno Gomes, Ricardo Quaresma, Joao Moutinho, Eder, Rafa Silva, Ruben Neves.