Portugal v Czech Republic, June 21, 7.45pm
June 21 ~ What a difference ten days made. There were widespread misgivings in Portugal about the perceived lackadaisical preparations for Euro 2012, notably from coaches Manuel José and Carlos Queiroz. The two had axes to grind, it must be said – the former for being overlooked when Luiz Felipe Scolari was made national coach in 2003, the latter for being kicked out of the job halfway through the qualifying phase – but they were far from alone in their criticisms. Now that the campaign is well on track, and optimism among the vast majority of Portuguese is stoked up, coach Paulo Bento has hit back.
The coach admitted in a press conference on Wednesday (his 43rd birthday) that it isn't part of his character to turn the other cheek. After Portugal had given Holland um banho de bola (a bath of football) and qualified out of Group B, he fired a bitter salvo at the team's detractors: "Some will already be sharpening their knives and buying Czech Republic scarves, just to see if we get eliminated."
Either by orders from above or infected by Bento, the players refused to make any unofficial statements after the Holland game. In a later press conference, Raul Meireles was defensive about the media blackout: "We all have a right to freedom. If we decide not to speak, the Portuguese can only respect our wishes."
While this posture may have reflected the solidarity the squad showed in the Dutch game, with every single player running himself into the ground for the cause, it also smacked a little of an arrogance that has done for the national side's chances on more than one occasion in the past. Bento is well aware of the danger and warned against it on Wednesday: "If we lose just one per cent of our humility, we'll have trouble getting through."
The refreshingly high workrate and some moments of splendid inspiration gave the Seleção their best performance for a good while against Holland, suggesting that the team is hitting peak form at just the right time. Cristiano Ronaldo, excellent in that game, will be the Czechs' main concern, though coach Michal Bilek also singled out Nani and Hélder Postiga for praise. Mention of the latter may, however, have been an attempt to raise a chuckle at the press conference, which can sometimes be dour affairs.
Bilek also made a passing reference to a game that still sticks in Portuguese minds for all the wrong reasons: the Euro 96 quarter-final, when Karel Poborsky's chip bamboozled Vítor Baía and took the Czechs through: "That victory was exceptional for Czech football, and we'd like to repeat it. Portugal are favourites again, and we lost our first game in 96. There are encouraging similarities."
Bento, Ronaldo and Meireles have all insisted that there are no favourites in this game, but that observation has fallen on ten million pairs of deaf ears in Portugal. Phil Town