Midweek Muse: The Dirty South – Portuguese party-poopers are filling a time-honoured pantomime villain role at Euro 2016

Portugal’s stodgy progress into the semi-finals of Euro 2016, where they face Wales tonight, has been greeted with disgruntlement from those who believe they have the tools, Cristiano Ronaldo et al, to have played more expansively. Tom Simmonds shrugs – this has happened before.

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Coach Fernando Santos’ protestation that he would rather Portugal were “ugly at Euro 2016 than beautiful at home” is not a new one. The result is all, says the pragmatic coach. Portugal have failed to win in normal time so far and have led a charmed life. However, for all Santos’ playing up to attempts to cast him as the dark lord, there have been teams more cynical than this Portugal one in recent memory.

It is the summer 1990. Carlos Bilardo’s Argentina have headed to Italy to defend the World Cup they won four years prior in Mexico, a victory largely enabled by the good, bad, and ugly sides of a squat magician named Diego Maradona. Expectations were high in 1990 that Pelusa would inspire Argentina to another world title, as he had just come off the back of doing the same in Serie A, delivering a second Scudetto in four years to Napoli.

Events did not follow that arc. While Argentina did reach the final, which they lost 1-0 to an equally joyless West German side, Maradona had a tournament which was as subdued as the one Ronaldo is enduring now. The two goals which CR7 managed to put past Hungary are rich pickings compared to Maradona’s Italia 90.

Maradona was the creative fulcrum of a team who scored just five times in seven games at Italia 90. Though he showed periodic glimpses of his magic, he never made it his tournament in the way he did at Mexico 86. He was straitjacketed in an Argentine side that was so cynical that it was able to make a virtue of all of these things by adeptly surfing the general trend for ultra-defensive football that marred that tournament. This, remember, was a World Cup where the Republic of Ireland managed to get to the quarter-finals without winning a game and scoring just twice.

The famous opening game of Italia 90, in which Argentina were beaten 1-0 by Cameroon, gave a taste of the sort of brutalism that was to come. Ironically, one of the tournament’s first instances of it was meted out to Argentina’s Claudio Caniggia. After two agricultural attempts to stop him failed, Cameroon defender Benjamin Massing took him out with a foul so violent that he lost a boot in the process.

Argentina carried on in a similarly cynical, though less overtly thuggish manner throughout the tournament, scratching through the group by beating Russia 2-0 and securing their passage with a hard-fought 1-1 draw against an emergent Romania side.

A late controversial (a conspiracy theory that the Argentina bench drugged Brazilian set-piece maestro Branco’s water bottle, mid-game continue to abound) and undeserved 1-0 win over Brazil, secured by Caniggia’s finish after a brilliant run and pass by Maradona, booked them a date with Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia were behind the eight-ball after Refik Šabanadžović was sent off after half an hour, resulting in both teams settling for playing out a stultifying 0-0 draw before Argentina won the shoot-out 3-2.

Repeat process against Italy in the semi-final, where Argentina grimly processed to another successful 12-yard-lottery and progressed to that wretched final, decided in West Germany’s favour by Andreas Brehme’s late penalty.

Examining the play of the teams who fulfil the pantomime villain role at tournaments, what often strikes you are the shafts of light which creep through the slate-grey facades they put up. For Maradona’s run and pass against Brazil in 1990, see Renato Sanches’ strike for Portugal’s equaliser against Poland in the quarter-final last week. Anyway, if even the spoilers are playing out 3-3 draws, as Portugal did against Hungary in the group stages, then I think we can say that is progress in terms of refining tournaments as a spectacle!

Who have been your favourite team of spoilers at an international tournament?

Read more from Tom here

Follow Tom on Twitter @TallulahOnEarth

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