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Euro 2020: Can Portugal’s Latest Golden Generation Defend Their Euro Crown?

Cristiano Ronaldo still looms over the Portugal national team, but his supporting cast of João Felix, Diogo Jota, and others are ready for their turn in the spotlight

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

With Germany in something of a slump, Italy improving but still inexperienced at the sharp end of tournaments, and Spain lacking the depth of the previous generation, the national team out of Europe’s “big four” (nations that have lifted both the World Cup and European Championships) favored by the bookies is France. The door is open for one of three countries harboring golden generations of players.

Outside of family lineage, a generation is a tricky thing to define. The flux of bodies through an institution—in this case, a national soccer team—cannot easily be separated out. Doing so is inherently arbitrary, certainly not scientific, though nevertheless useful. We have chosen a figure of seven years, which would in theory allow players of, say, 26 and 19 years of age to play a cycle of four tournaments together: two World Cups and two continental Championships. The first two parts of our look at these Golden Generations examined Belgium and England. Third up, Portugal.

One figure has dominated Portuguese football for nearly 20 years: a man with several Ballons d’Or; well-chiseled pecs, traps, and abs; and a very large swag of goals, including 104 in national colors. And yet, Cristiano Ronaldo’s greatest influence on the reigning European champions—a team that also won the inaugural Nations League in 2019, beating Netherlands in the final—may turn out to be inspiring the generation that has followed in his wake. Portugal, a country with a population just shy of 10.5 million, has a current crop of players between 20 and 27 years of age that is a bona fide golden generation.

Ronaldo’s debut in August 2003—the same year the youngest member of Portugal’s Euro 2020 squad, Nuno Mendes, celebrated his first birthday—caught the tail end of the country’s previous and original geração de ouro, the group that, possibly apocryphally, coined the term. Fernando Couto, João Pinto, and current Poland coach Paulo Sousa were part of the Portugal under-20 team that won the country’s first FIFA World Youth Championship in 1989, a title they retained on home soil two years later with Jorge Costa and the generation’s two genuine superstars, Rui Costa and Luís Figo, in the ranks. Strikers Pauleta and Nuno Gomes, goalkeeper Vítor Baía, winger Sérgio Conceição, and midfield anchor Costinha were all born within seven years of Couto. All 11 featured in Euro 2000, four were still around for the semis of the 2006 World Cup—Portugal was eliminated by Zinédine Zidane penalties on both occasions—and six were there for A Seleção’s shock defeat to Greece in Lisbon’s Estádio da Luz in the final of Euro 2004.

Twelve years later, as Portugal inflicted the same fate on France with a 1-0 European Championship final victory on home turf, Ronaldo initially cut a bereft and tearful figure, subbed off through injury in the 25th minute. Later, he roused himself to cajole his compatriots from the sideline through extra time. Five years on, as an even more paternal presence, he remains the point of reference for Portugal. His game, like his body, has been pared down and sculpted into football’s supreme goal-scoring machine. Only now he is surrounded by an abundance of talent—in attacking areas, his teammates are planets orbiting that increasingly static fireball up front—and the majority of these players are drawn from European club football’s superpowers.

Portugal succeeds in the UEFA Youth Championships, with one of the under-21s, under-19s, or under-17s reaching the final for each of the past seven years of competition. Many of the players who participated on those teams graduated to the senior squad. In 2014, André Silva top scored as Portugal lost to Germany in the under-19s final. The following year, Bernardo Silva, João Cancelo, Raphaël Guerreiro, Rúben Neves, and William Carvalho swept the Germans aside 5-0 in the under-21s semifinal before losing to Sweden on penalties, with the likes of Inter’s João Mário and Leicester’s Ricardo Pereira also involved (those two are absent from this year’s Euros, which demonstrates Portugal’s frightening depth).

In 2016, the under-17s beat neighbors Spain on penalties in the European Championship. The under-19s reached the finals in 2017, 2018, and 2019, with defeats to England and Spain in 2017 and 2019 and a victory over Italy in the 2018 (Barcelona winger Francisco Trincão finished as joint top scorer in that tournament). Finally, in March 2021, a Portuguese team featuring Trincão, the hugely promising Thierry Correia of Valencia, and AC Milan’s Diogo Dalot reached the under-21s final, losing 1-0 to Germany. The latter two missed the cut for the Euro 2020 senior team, with Dalot a late addition following João Cancelo’s positive COVID-19 test. Even factoring in the difficulties of transitioning from junior to senior football, it is a formidable record and the Portuguese talent pool shows no sign of drying up.

Aside from knowing how and when to integrate these starlets into the senior squad, the major conundrum facing coach Fernando Santos—84 games and almost seven years into his tenure, with just 13 defeats (five from 56 in competitive games)—is which combination to go with of the myriad permutations offered by his golden generation. At least one of four outstanding creators and forwards— João Félix (21), Diogo Jota (24), Bruno Fernandes (26), and Bernardo Silva (26)—looks set to miss out on a starting berth. This is without even mentioning either André Silva (25), whose 28 Bundesliga goals for Eintracht Frankfurt were more than Erling Haaland managed, or Valencia winger Gonçalo Guedes (24), who scored the winner against the Dutch in the Nations League final.

The natural position of João Félix—winner of the 2019 Golden Boy award—is as a roving second striker; he’s a gliding two-footed schemer, albeit with a dreamy left foot, and the natural heir to Antoine Griezmann at Atletico Madrid’s Wanda Metropolitano. He played as a no. 10 in the recent 0-0 warm-up against Spain, when Santos experimented with a 4-2-3-1. In the past year’s nine competitive internationals, Felix started in seven and also featured as a winger in a 4-3-3 (Santos’s preferred formation) and as the focal point of the attack, both with and without Ronaldo in the side. He is versatile, but then so are his rivals for a starting slot.

After three years of quiet achievement at Wolves, Jota’s switch to Liverpool brought a flurry of goals at both club and international level. Through those nine Nations League and World Cup qualification games, his six goals are as many as Ronaldo, Félix, Bruno, and Bernardo combined, despite starting at least two games fewer than all of them. Tenacious and intelligent, he will be difficult to omit from the starting lineup.

Bruno Fernandes has had a stellar 18 months since arriving at Old Trafford, albeit with a few question marks about his contributions in big games. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer uses him in a variety of roles—as a no. 10 in a 4-2-3-1, and as both wide forward and no. 8 in 4-3-3, the role he is likely to occupy for Portugal. Bruno is the chief creator and instigator at club level, and subjugating his ego to the collective and adapting to Ronaldo—or becoming a high-grade instrumentalist, rather than the conductor and occasional one-man rescue act he is for Manchester United—will suit both player and team.

Perhaps the most certain of this golden foursome to make the XI is Bernardo, whose versatility allows him to play on the left of both midfield and attack in a 4-3-3, as he has done in four largely excellent seasons at Manchester City. Starting with Bernardo allows Santos to push him forward if more midfield beef is needed or drop him deeper if he wishes to take the nuclear option of Bruno and Bernardo playing as eights behind an attacking trident of Félix, Ronaldo, and Jota—an unlikely but mouthwatering combination.

A football team is a holistic entity, and the personnel in the creative positions will depend on Santos’s selections at the back of midfield. PSG’s Danilo Pereira and Real Betis’s William Carvalho, both 29, could in theory play as a double-pivot in a 4-2-3-1, although it’s more likely one of them would partner with another member of the golden generation, 24-year-old Neves, who offers a little more sophistication on the ball and a little more rhythm. The natural heir to his 131-cap Wolves colleague João Moutinho (34), Neves not only offers contrast to Danilo or Carvalho as a deep-lying playmaker in a 4-2-3-1, but could also play in a slightly more advanced position in a 4-3-3 (although, famously, it took him 133 league games for Wolves before scoring an open-play goal from inside the penalty box).

There is also Renato Sanches (23) to consider, a Golden Boy predecessor of Félix and Young Player of the Tournament at Euro 2016. After a difficult few seasons with Bayern Munich (including an unhappy loan spell at Swansea), his confidence has been restored at Ligue 1 champions Lille and he is able to play a variety of midfield roles.

Behind the front six sit the unfussy competence of goalkeeper Rui Patricio (33) and the enduring quality of three-time Champions League winner Pepe—at 38, the oldest member of the squad (with backup center half José Fonte, also of Lille, a pup at 37).

They will be joined by three more of Portugal’s new geração do ouro, including one of Bernardo’s teammates in Manchester. Another product of Benfica’s hugely successful academy, Rúben Dias has been a revelation in his debut season at the Etihad, shoring up a previously vulnerable defense and drawing comparisons with Virgil van Dijk’s impact at Liverpool. Winner of both the Football Writers’ and Manchester City’s Player of the Year awards and already looking a snip at $82 million-plus, Rúben is a commanding presence in both boxes—he scored a brace in a 3-2 Nations League win in Croatia last November, including a 90th-minute winner—and his leadership and relative mobility will help the veterans alongside him.

The absence of the third member of City’s Portuguese triumvirate, Cancelo (27), the most expensive full back in history, will be keenly felt, although the former Barcelona starlet Nélson Semedo, also 27 and now part of a sizable Portuguese enclave at Wolves, is strong backup. If not quite as polished as Cancelo, Semedo is a similarly modern full back, offering yet another offensive outlet for Portugal, as does Borussia Dortmund’s Guerreiro (27) at left back. Only five men had more Bundesliga assists than the French-born defender last season and he has been a consistent performer for A Seleção since making the Team of the Tournament at the last Euros.

In terms of depth, quality, and age profile, the Portuguese squad is impressively strong. The problem for Portugal is their draw. Group D features the two most recent winners of the World Cup in heavyweights Germany (who Santos has never faced) and France, with Hungary making up the numbers, albeit with home advantage in two games and the possibility of the tournament’s sole 100 percent capacity stadium. Some of the high-wire edge from this “group of death” has been removed, however, by UEFA’s cash-milking, symmetry-disrupting, jeopardy-minimizing expansion of the Euros from 16 to 24 teams in 2016. Portugal’s opening fixture is against the Hungarians in Budapest. If Portugal bags three points there, then there’s a strong chance that one more point will see them through to the last 16.

Whatever happens, there will be no inferiority complex, no sense that they are still Spain’s small neighbors, technically gifted and playing pretty football but not winners. The monkey from the previous golden generation’s three near-misses is off Portugal’s back and a new, even more gilded generation has been fine-tuned at the top end of European club game and has the confidence and potential to create a trophy-winning dynasty.

Scott Oliver is a British writer covering sports and the intersection of culture and politics. He has written for The Guardian, VICE, ESPN, i-D and New Statesman, among others.