Portugal have produced a number of top stars in football. But who would make an all-time playing XI of Portuguese legends?
Welcome back to this SportsLumo special, where we chronicle the best of the best in international football. This is a 20-part series, so do stay tuned for content as and when we post it. We have previously covered England, Argentina, Brazil, France and Germany in this series. Today’s nation of focus is Portugal.
Portugal’s record in international football isn’t necessarily one of a top team. After all, the nation have only won one European Championship, that too in 2016. Aside from that, they won the newly-made competition, the UEFA Nations League, in 2019. Their World Cup record is also somewhat sketchy. They made their first appearance in the tournament in 1996, where they finished third. That remains their best finish in the tournament till date. Subsequent appearances have seen them make the semis only once, in 2006. However, despite a mixed international record, Portugal have produced a number of top stars in the sport.
As such, picking a playing XI consisting of their best players can be something of a task. Yet it is a task we took upon ourselves, with some interesting results too.
So without further ado, let’s take a look at Portugal’s best-ever playing XI as well as manager.
Vitor Baia is a rare case on this list, mainly for the fact that he achieved most of his success in the Portuguese league with Porto. That was not uncommon in the 1900s – as we will see further on this list – but by Baia’s time, most notable Portuguese players would leave for other leagues.
Indeed, his fine shot-stopping caught the eye of Barcelona, who signed him in 1996. However, he was dropped when manager Louis van Gaal preferred Ruud Hesp in the position. Baia would return to Porto and picked up where he left off, winning trophy after trophy with the side.
By the time he called it quits, he had won a total of 27 domestic honours with Porto and had been capped 80 times for Portugal. He could have played more had he not been unceremoniously dropped by Luiz Felipe Scolari after he took the reins of the national team in 2002. Still, he remains one of Portugal’s finest and most successful ‘keepers ever.
Joao Pinto was once described by Bobby Robson, who was coach of Porto when the right-back was an active player, as someone with “two hearts and four legs. It’s extremely difficult to find a player like him.” Indeed, Pinto was someone who left it all on the field.
His industry, leadership and ability made him a mainstay for both Portugal and club Porto. He won a total of 24 titles with Porto; besides numerous league and cup titles, he also won the European Cup, the European Super Cup and the Intercontinental Cup. Indeed, after he retired, his loyalty was rewarded with a coaching position in the youth teams.
His Portugal career was devoid of any major glory. But having been capped for his country 70 times, he was indispensable. He captained Portugal in 42 games and his leadership was so well renowned that he was nicknamed Capitao.
Here’s a name modern football fans would be familiar with. Ricardo Cavarlho was a key part of the Porto side that won the Champions League in 2004, before following manager Jose Mourinho to Chelsea. He would play for another Mourinho-managed side when he joined Real Madrid later in his career.
Carvalho is everything a modern defender should be. His elegant style on the ball, ability to pick out passes from anywhere as well as his ball-carrying made him a key part of all his sides. He was also strong in the air and was able to read the game extremely well.
He was part of the Portugal side that won Euro 2016, although he wasn’t a first-choice player by that point and was in the twilight of his career. Yet from the early 2000s he was always one of the first names on the Portugal team-sheet. Till date he is considered one of the finest defenders the world has ever seen.
Another name modern fans will be familiar with, although mostly for the wrong reasons. Whereas Carvalho was silky and elegant, Pepe was tough and no-nonsense. His style of play would have fit in perfectly in the England sides of old; such is his penchant for tackles, kicks and roughing up the opposition.
However, it is worth noting that the traits of the Brazil-born defender which people hate are the ones that make him indispensable to managers. Players like him aren’t easy on the eye, but they get the job done. Even if they run the risk of picking up yellow and red cards like confetti.
It says a lot that despite his sketchy disciplinary record, he was practically a first-choice for all his clubs, as well as his country. Indeed, he was one of the key reasons why Portugal would go on to lift the European Championship in 2016.
Not to be confused with the goalkeeper of the same name, Hilario Rosario da Conceicao is widely considered to be among the best left-backs Portugal has ever produced. He spent his entire career at Sporting CP, where he won three leagues, three domestic cups and one UEFA Cup Winners Cup.
Hilario was an underrated member of Portugal’s first ‘golden generation’ in the 1960s. That side, which was led by Eusebio – more on him later – managed a third-place finish in the 1966 World Cup. Hilario was a key part of that side, and would continue to make appearances for the national team until 1971.
He was a sure-shot starter during his time at the Sporting CP, where he both started and ended his career. Indeed, he went on to make over 400 appearances for them in a stint that lasted 15 years. For that kind of longevity at such a high level, he makes it onto this list.
Dubbed O Monstro Sagrado or ‘The Sacred Monster’ for due to his all-round midfield play, Mario Coluna is widely regarded as one of the finest players to ever come out of Portugal. Another member of the 1960’s ‘Golden Generation’, he too spent the entirety of his career at one club – Benfica.
His time at the club was one which brought the team a lot of success. Indeed, they won 10 league titles as well as two European Cups and one Intercontinental Cup. Besides that, they won 6 domestic cup trophies as well.
Starting out as a wide-forward, Coluna would eventually be converted into a central midfielder. The reason behind the switch was down to his stamina and work-rate; as well as his technical skills and ability to shoot and score from distance. He too was a key member of the Portugal side which finished third in the 1966 World Cup. He is still the benchmark for budding midfielders from the country.
Paulo Sosa remains one of the finest deep-lying or defensive midfielders to have come out of Portugal. Normally typecast as a hard-tackling ball-winner, he nevertheless possessed great technique on the ball. As such, he mostly played in a deeper role where he could both dictate the play and stop opposition attacks.
Unlike others on this list, however, Sosa did not spend his career at just the one club. His journeyman career saw him play for both Benfica and Sporting CP. He also had successful stints outside of Portugal, winning trophies with both Juventus in Italy and Borussia Dortmund in Germany.
His Portugal career saw him win 51 caps for the national team; he was also a key part of the side that finished third in Euro 2000. He was also the U-20 World Cup winner with Portugal in 1989 and is considered part of Portugal’s second ‘Golden Generation’ of the late ‘90s and early 2000s.
Rui Costa is considered one of the finest and most creative attacking midfielders to have played for Portugal. That’s no mean feat, given Portugal have always excelled in nurturing attacking talent. Costa’s playmaking ability, creativity, technique and ability to score and assist goals made him a must-see player in his prime.
He won a league and domestic cup with Benfica, before moving abroad to Italy with Fiorentina. There he won two Coppa Italias and a Supercoppa before moving to AC Milan, where he is best remembered. His creativity stood out in a side that would feature Andrea Pirlo, Clarence Seedorf and Kaka. This dream team would lead AC Milan to league, cup and European success.
Costa’s international career saw him earn 94 caps over an 11-year period. The best Portugal could do with him in the side, however, was finish runners-up in Euro 2004. Costa was unfortunate to miss out on international glory but that takes nothing away from his sheer talent.
Luis Figo is a name controversially remembered for being the last big-name player to move directly between bitter Spanish rivals Barcelona and Real Madrid. However, remembering only for his move from Barca to Real would be doing a disservice to one of Portugal’s all-time great players.
Figo was a constant menace on the right wing; his ability to beat players and curl in sumptuous crosses saw him create many a chance for teammates. His creativity and goal-scoring also stood out, but Figo excelled at loading the bullets for others to shoot. Indeed, he’s got the second-most La Liga assists after a certain Lionel Messi.
He was also the captain of Portugal for most of his international career. He also managed to score 32 goals in 127 appearances. Despite having no silverware to show for his time as skipper, he is nevertheless Portugal’s fourth-highest goal-scorer and third-most capped player. His leadership also stood out in national team colours, making him an invaluable presence.
Another player whose name modern fans would be very familiar with. Cristiano Ronaldo is a shoo-in candidate for the “Greatest of All Time” debate. Indeed, his goalscoring exploits are the stuff of legends – he is currently the highest-ever goal-scorer in international football.
Ronaldo started his career as a skilful winger; a role in which he excelled at both Sporting CP and Manchester United. His later career saw him become more of a pure goal-scorer; someone who got the goals regardless of whether he was deployed on the wings or in a central position as a striker.
Incredibly, at one point Ronaldo struggled to translate his club form for his country. All that changed when he played a key part in Portugal winning Euro 2016, the first-ever international trophy for the European nation. Ronaldo is getting on in age now, but it doesn’t show in his game. His ability to find the back of the net remains unmatched.
Before Figo and Ronaldo, unquestionably the greatest player to emerge out of Portugal was Eusebio da Silva Ferreira, known simply as Eusebio. Nicknamed The Black Panther – no relation to the Marvel superhero – due to his speed, Eusebio was renowned for his goalscoring, technique and fierce athleticism which marked him apart from the rest.
It was Eusebio who was key to Portugal’s run to the 1966 World Cup semi-finals and their eventual third-placed finish. He scored 9 goals in the tournament, winning both the top goal-scorer award as well as the Bronze Ball. He would also win the Ballon d’Or in 1965.
At club level, he was prolific for a Benfica side that made winning a second nature. His time at the club saw them win 31 trophies, including success both at home and in Europe. He also won the Bola de Prata – Portugal’s top goal-scorer trophy – a record 7 times. He is the only player to have done so.
The choice for manager of this side was an easy one; after all, Fernando Santos was the man at the helm when Portugal won their first-ever international trophy. Santos led them to Euro 2016 glory and would also take them to a win in the inaugural UEFA Nations League in 2019.
Santos isn’t a manager who is big on attacking patterns or fluidity of movement. His in-game philosophy is simple: work hard, defend even harder and take your chances when they come. They were the only undefeated team in Euro 2016. Yet it’s worth noting they only made the knockouts as one of the best third-place sides in the group stages.
Santos’ defensive style has seen him cop some criticism but you cannot deny that it got results. Indeed, the two trophies remain the only ones won by Portugal and he will most likely lead them in the 2022 World Cup too.