23 May 2020

Think of European table tennis powerhouses, countries such as Germany, Sweden, France and Romania are bound to pop up in conversation. However, should we be giving more thought to Portugal?

Enjoying a fine all-round display at last year’s Liebherr 2019 European Championships, Portugal secured silver medals in both team events to further establish its presence on the continental scene. The country’s journey over the past decade has most certainly been an eventful one!

by Simon Daish

History makers

The Portuguese men’s team has been a major player on the world stage for a number of years, mounting a constant push for the highest honours on European shores over the past decade in particular. Marcos Freitas, Tiago Apolonia and João Monteiro have proven a most reliable trio for the country and all three were present in the team that made history in 2014.

For the first time the European Championships were hosted on Portuguese soil, Lisbon the venue. Freitas, Apolonia and Monteiro, joined by young talents in João Geraldo and Diogo Chen, enjoyed an awe-inspiring campaign; the outcome Portugal crowned men’s team champions for the first time!

Scenes of jubilation engulfed the MEO Arena in Lisbon for history had been made and Portuguese stars produced similar scenes one year later in Baku, successfully beating France to clinch the men’s team gold medal at the inaugural European Games.

Scenes of jubilation as Portugal enters history books in Lisbon (Photo: ETTU)
You can’t argue with consistency!

Notable performances enacted in Lisbon and Baku; but arguably it is the consistency of the team that has shaped them into one of the finest outfits.

Quarter-finalists at the Perfect 2016 World Team Championships in Kuala Lumpur, one year later Portugal was amongst the headlines once again with a silver medal finish at the 2017 European Championships in Luxembourg. Enjoying its time at the top, the team was not planning on slowing down anytime soon!

Still at the top of the game

Any fears of seeing a tail off in form towards the close of the decade were put to rest with 2019 proving another successful year for the squad.

Bronze at the 2019 European Games in Minsk, the Portuguese men’s team then made it to a third European Championships final in the space of five years only to be beaten by a strong German team. More recently, the team successfully navigated the 2020 ITTF World Team Qualification Tournament in Gondomar to qualify for its third consecutive Olympic Games.

Portugal has been a regular fixture in the European Championships men’s team final since its 2014 triumph (Photo: Rémy Gros)

There’s little doubt that Portugal is now a fully established European giant, but what of the country’s women’s line-up?

Off the pace but brighter days ahead

If the Portuguese men’s team enjoyed a bright spell at the top for the majority of the past decade, it could be argued the country’s efforts in the women’s team category paints a different picture.

Germany, Romania and the Netherlands are the only teams to have won women’s team gold on the European Championships stage since 2007! An incredible statistic; it shows just how difficult it is to buck the trend. Not only had Portugal never lifted the trophy but in the lead-up to 2014 the country had never reached the medal podium!

Nevertheless hopes were high for the 2014 European Championships with Portugal benefiting from home support in Lisbon. Three fixtures contested, Portuguese dreams were shattered as the hosts suffered a group stage elimination – contrasting that with the men’s team success, one can understand the frustration. Further disappointment followed at the 2015 European Games as Portugal was sent tumbling in round one with a 3-1 defeat to Russia.

Times were tough for the Portuguese women’s set up but the only way was up and a stronger showing at the 2015 European Championships in Ekaterinburg helped. A big confidence boost for Portugal and brighter times were on the close horizon.

The Fu Yu effect

Sometimes in sport the actions of one player can appear to lift the spirits of a nation, if that statement applies to anyone in the Portuguese camp surely it is Fu Yu.

Participating at the 2016 European Championships as the no.9 seeded player in the women’s singles event, Fu Yu looked a determined character as she attempted to keep her country’s progress on the right track. The pen-hold expert brushed aside big-name opponents in Budapest including 2015 European champion Elizabeta Samara on her way to a runner-up finish!

Fu Yu pictured in action during a memorable 2015 European Championships campaign (Photo: ETTU)

One year on and another opportunity to leave Lisbon 2014 in the past presented itself – competing at the 2017 European Championships in Luxembourg, the arrival of another quarter-final finish for Portugal produced reason for optimism but now the question was whether or not bigger and better things awaited this group of players. In short, the answer was yes!

Reaching the top

Succumbing to a second round exit at the inaugural European Games in 2015, returning to the same stage four years later in Minsk, Fu Yu proved unstoppable at the 2019 Games; seeded eighth for the women’s singles draw this time, Fu saw off German defender Han Ying 4-2 to claim gold.

An excellent result for Fu and a good omen for the 2019 European Championships, scheduled to take place just a few months later. Fu Yu, Shao Jieni, Leila Oliveira and Rita Fins were selected to represent the nation in Nantes; they would all emerge as history makers!

Topping Group G, Portugal then mustered up a huge 3-2 win over eight-time champions Germany to guarantee a first-ever women’s team medal for the country. A 3-1 success against Hungary followed – the very same team that suffered elimination at the first hurdle in Lisbon five years earlier had secured an unlikely silver medal.

From a round one elimination in 2014 to silver medallists in 2019 – talk about a transformation! (Photo: Rémy Gros)
A force to be reckoned with!

Runners up in both categories at the 2019 European Championships, Portugal has established itself as a force to be reckoned with on the European scene. The men’s team are regular contenders for silverware, the women’s line-up was just as impressive in Nantes, but the next step is to establish consistency.

On the whole exciting times lie ahead for Portuguese table tennis and if favourable results continue to flood in, few will be able to argue about the country’s status on the global stage.

Features Marcos Freitas Tiago Apolonia Joao Monteiro Fu Yu Shao Jieni