After a disastrous World Cup campaign, Portugal looked set for a major upheaval. A loss to Albania proved too much to ignore and Bento’s time at the helm was cut short. Filipe Ribeiro looks at the chain of events that led to the sacking and gives us his initial assessment of his replacement, Fernando Santos in the first of a two part article.
Last Friday, newly appointed manager of the Portugal national team Fernando Santos called up his first squad in charge of the Seleção ahead of the two upcoming matches, a friendly against France and an important Euro qualifier against Denmark. Before taking a look at what’s coming up for Portugal in this new era under Santos, we analyze in this first part of the article how they got to the tricky situation in which they find themselves, from their World Cup woes to the debacle against Albania.
The repercussions of Brazil
The World Cup was a disaster for Portugal. The calamity in June was evident on the field, but the poor results against Germany and USA were a symptom more than the problem in itself. From then manager Paulo Bento’s list of 23 men, to the curious case of the medical department and of course, Cristiano Ronaldo’s infamous tendinosis.
But the World Cup came and went and was thoroughly dissected. However when it came to the first match of the qualifying stages for the Euro 2016, and after the Portuguese Football Federation (FPF) had assured everyone that Bento was to remain until the end of the tournament in France, everything was apparently wiped clean.
But appearances can be deceiving. Paulo Bento’s attempt at rejuvenation of the Portuguese camp was immediately surrounded by controversy, and when the news came that Ronaldo wouldn’t be playing due to injury, dark clouds gathered. Still, the first qualifier was an easy home match against Albania, Portugal surely didn’t need their main man to win against Albania, did they? As the surprising 52-minute goal by Balaj proved, the answer was yes. The team lacked ideas and couldn’t figure out how to break down Albania’s low line apart from a few attempts from outside the box that even saw debutant Ricardo Horta hit the bar. The impact of the World Cup had been too deep, and the doubt over the manager, players and Federation’s heads was too great to be ignored.
The loss shocked the nation and after reaffirming he was staying, Paulo Bento and the Federation settled for the manager’s departure. In his 47 games in charge, Bento guided Portugal to 26 wins, 12 draws and only 9 losses, but that last number proved to be too big for fans, pundits, media and even Bento himself, who ultimately agreed to walk away on September 11th.
Albania was the last straw
The match against Albania saw Bento employ the usual 4-3-3 with Patrício behind the defense comprised of Pereira, Pepe, Ricardo Costa and Coentrão. The midfield saw the confirmation of William Carvalho as Portugal’s new number 6, alongside Moutinho and first-time starter André Gomes, who has had a great start to the season at his new club Valencia. With the absence of captain Ronaldo, Vieirinha got the nod next to Nani and Éder to form the trio upfront. Nothing too surprising, and with the exception of Gomes and Vieirinha (perhaps Costa at the central defense too), the starting lineup was business as usual.
But the controversy had started way before the kick-off at the Municipal de Aveiro, when Bento’s first post-World Cup squad selection was met with surprise at new names such as the likes of Rúben Vezo, Pedro Tiba and Ricardo Horta among others in an attempt to his desired “renovation” of the National Team pool. People still remembered Adrien Silva being shunned for Rafa in the World Cup squad just a couple of months before, for example, and now the Sporting man was apparently fit to be called, while Rafa wasn’t. Amidst the accusations there were also tales of bias towards players brokered by super-agent Jorge Mendes (who is also Paulo Bento’s agent), and cries for an even greater revolution: pundits and fans argued that players like Veloso, Meireles and João Pereira weren’t good enough to make the cut.
Nevertheless, when the ball started rolling on that Sunday night in Aveiro, nobody in the world was expecting that come the 90-minute mark, Portugal would be losing 0-1 to Albania. But the truth was the home side looked uninspired throughout the evening, and even though dominating most of the events, never quite managed to punch a hole through Gianni De Biasi’s men, whose stunning counterattacking goal was enough to oust Portugal, and eventually Paulo Bento. Nani looked the most dangerous player for the home side, and there was that Horta shot against the bar which almost provided him with a dream debut, but other than that, the midfield looked slow and the attack lacked the ability to get past Lorik Cana and his teammates, who did just enough to hold on to the result.
Things would perhaps have been different with Ronaldo on the field. If there is any player in the whole of the Euro qualifiers that can decide a match on his own it certainly is Portugal’s captain, and if even the mighty Real Madrid struggle when Cristiano doesn’t play, then his National Team most definitely does so. But somehow there’s a feeling of inevitability about the outcome, as if Ronaldo was only delaying the unavoidable fate of Paulo Bento’s reign. When the captain wasn’t there, that reign fell apart.
Heads hung low coming out of the field when the referee signaled the end of the catastrophe, and after a few days of commotion, Paulo Bento’s head did more than that and metaphorically rolled to signal the end of his tenure in charge of his country’s National Team.
The right man at the wrong time?
Rumours immediately started to fly as Portugal began their search for a new National manager, but one name leapt to the top of the pile. Even though managers like José Peseiro, former two-time Portuguese champion Vítor Pereira and even Roberto Mancini were linked with a possibility, Fernando Santos was evidently everyone’s favorite for the job. The ex-Greece manager not only had that experience as a National Team coach, but he had been in charge of the Big Three of Portugal at different stages of his career, so he gathered the consensus of most of the fans and media in the country. Perfect, but for one small detail: Santos is suspended by FIFA for his next 8 international matches. The odds of his appointment dropped in the following days. But in the end, or rather on September 23rd, Fernando Santos fulfilled
his dream of taking charge of the Portuguese National Team.
His first press conference had two main topics of conversation: his 8-game suspension from international matches; and his approach to National Team management – and whether it differed from that of his predecessor. The answer to the first topic is that the suits are hard at work: apparently the massive ban applied to Santos wasn’t reduced because his then employer, the Greek FA, didn’t warn him in time for an appeal; but the legal branch of the FPF is already looking for a solution to this conundrum and meanwhile they’re confident that this isn’t going to hurt the team’s chances. “We know that we have enough weapons to fight this [ban] in a good way, and that it isn’t going to influence the performances of the team. I have full confidence in Ilídio [Vale, Santos’ assistant], who’s going to be on the bench, and in all the technical staff”, explained Santos during the press conference. The answer to the second is a more complex one, and one that we will analyze in more detail in the second part of this article, although the man himself describes it a pretty simple fashion: win. “I only know how to win, I don’t know how to lose”, Santos said, rejecting the idea of a renovation –which was apparently the former manager’s main agenda– and stated that there are no restrictions when it comes to his call-ups, in reference to several cases of players that Paulo Bento had dropped from the Seleção due to disagreements with the ex-manager.
And if any doubts still remained as to what or whom Fernando Santos was specifically talking about, then his first squad utterly dissipated them.
Written by Filipe Ribeiro