By Miles Chambers
Portugal's chances of lifting the World Cup will rely mainly on the fitness and form of star man Cristiano Ronaldo.
The Ballon d'Or winner has the hopes of a nation resting on his broad shoulders, but has been dogged by injury problems since Real Madrid's Champions League final win over Atletico.
No European team have ever won the World Cup on South American soil, but Brazil will be a second home of sorts for the Portuguese, with the two nations linked across the Atlantic Ocean by language and culture. Many Selecao supporters will have no qualms rooting for Paulo Bento's men as their second team, especially considering there is no chance Luiz Felipe Scolari will face the team he coached a decade ago until at least the semi-finals.
Portugal have not always shone brightly at major tournaments but, in their defence, since losing Euro 2004 on home turf in the final they have only ever been eliminated by teams who went on to win or finish as runners-up. They have punched above their own weight, hauled into the latter stages of competitions by shining stars like Luis Figo and Deco, and will need to again if they want to win the World Cup for the first time in their history.
Poor performances in the qualification process, where they hobbled into the play-offs behind Russia then relied on Ronaldo's brilliance to defeat Sweden over two legs, have helped them arrive in Brazil under the radar. But, they have been drawn in one of the toughest groups with Ghana, USA and Germany.
Twelve years ago at World Cup 2002, Portugal had high hopes after a strong showing at Euro 2000 but lost their opening group game against the unfancied USA and ultimately tumbled out of the tournament. Current coach Bento played in all three of those games and will want revenge when they face Jurgen Klinsmann's men in their second clash of the Brazil tournament.
Fellow Europeans Germany are regular opponents and Portugual dealt the killer blow to their elimination from Euro 2000, although eight years later die Mannschaft got their own back by knocking Ronaldo and Co. out in Euro 2008 at the quarter-final stage.
They also clashed at World Cup 2006, but that was in the meaningless third-place play-off clash which Germany - then coached by current USA boss Klinsmann - won 3-1. Miroslav Klose, Lukas Podolski, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Philipp Lahm remain from that German team, while the Portuguese just have Ronaldo and Ricardo Costa that experienced that match. They open their World Cup campaign against Joachim Low's charges on June 16.
Speaking of old heads, Portugal have the fourth-oldest squad at the World Cup, suggesting that this is a group of players who are very much in their last-chance saloon if they are to win the tournament. Experienced centre-back Bruno Alves, Real Madrid defensive pair Fabio Coentrao and Pepe, Monaco central midfielder Joao Moutinho and maverick winger Nani are their other key men, showing they do possess talent beyond Ronaldo's powers.
Nuno Gomes - who helped fire the Seleccao to the semi-finals of the 2006 World Cup - acknowledged that Bento's squad is far better with the Ballon d'Or winner in it, but has faith in other players too.
"We will be stronger with the presence of Cristiano in the team," Gomes told Goal. "I hope he can recover quickly for the opening match, and can perform with good conditions for the team. But we have a good team; there are Nani and several other strikers. We also have Joao Moutinho. However, with Cristiano of course we are stronger. I hope they can perform well to bring Portugal to advance further in World Cup."
Knocked out in the last two major tournaments by eventual winners Spain - in the 2010 World Cup it was in the second round 1-0, in Euro 2012 it was on penalties in the semi-finals - Bento's men have come close to glory on a number of occasions in the last 10 years. This time, if Ronaldo can shake off his injury issues and they can drag themselves out of a tricky group, Portugal may yet be a darkhorse in the competition.
The Iberian nation have major tournament experience, the best goalscorer in the world and in their history, along with a track record of turning up when it matters in recent years. Now they just need to take that final elusive step in Brazil.