Lucky to survive World Cup
16 September ~ After an absurd start to the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign – a 1-0 home defeat to Albania, 60 places below Portugal in the FIFA rankings – the national team coach Paulo Bento and the Portuguese football federation (FPF) ended a four-year relationship that was supposed to last for another two years. Bento stepped in to replace Carlos Queiroz in 2010 when qualification for Euro 2012 was looking uncertain. He got the team to Poland/Ukraine via the play-offs and saw them through to the semi-finals, where they lost to eventual winners Spain on penalties.
They needed a play-off again to get to the 2014 World Cup. The triumphant, Ronaldo-inspired victories over Sweden disguised what had been a frankly poor qualifying campaign, in which they drew twice with Israel in a theoretically simple group that was topped by Russia.
Despite the lack of regular quality displays during that campaign, the FPF then renewed Bento’s contract until after the Euro 2016 finals. The show of faith proved optimistic: Portugal were utterly dismal in Brazil. But while coaches of other countries who had failed there either resigned or were sacked, Bento’s position was effectively reinforced.
At the end of August, the FPF president Fernando Gomes revealed the findings of an internal post-mortem on the Brazil debacle. “We weren’t competent,” he admitted, somewhat superfluously. “We weren’t able to achieve the minimum objective demanded of Portugal.” He didn’t blame Bento for it, though: “When you lose, not everything is bad. We made the conscious and considered option to renew Paulo Bento’s contract until the European Championship, so that he could be in charge of a necessary process of transition.” Instead, the medical staff were sacked en bloc, held responsible for the sorry physical condition of the players in Brazil.
That “process of transition” started timidly against Albania. Although the squad contained nine players who weren’t in Brazil, only one found his way into the starting line-up – Valencia midfielder André Gomes – with two more coming on as subs when things got desperate: forwards Ivan Cavaleiro of Deportivo La Coruña and Ricardo Horta of Málaga. The team were without the rested Cristiano Ronaldo and their dependence on him became increasingly obvious as their unimaginative efforts to break down the Albanian rearguard came up short time and time again. It was as if nothing had changed since the ignominious World Cup failure.
By the end of the game, many of the 23,000 in the Aveiro Municipal Stadium were booing, whistling or waving white handkerchiefs – a potent sign of dissatisfaction in Portuguese football and one that had to be addressed by Bento in the post-match press conference. He said that he respected the fans’ disappointment but refused to be drawn on whether his position was now at risk. Four days and a barrage of press (A Bola on the Albania game: “The Seleção’s greatest ever disgrace”) and social media criticism later, he was forced to walk. In total, his teams had played 47 games, won 26, drawn 12 and lost nine.
Among those in the frame to fix the already wobbly Euro 2016 campaign are former Greece coach Fernando Santos – despite his eight-match ban picked up at the World Cup, currently under appeal – and veteran Jesualdo Ferreira, both of whom have coached all of the Big Three (Benfica, FC Porto and Sporting), along with Vítor Pereira, who won two Portuguese league titles with FC Porto.
Whoever takes over will have to grapple with a lack of in-depth quality, especially in various positions (a creative midfielder and a striker who can actually score goals are screamingly conspicuous by their absence) and the residual trauma of Brazil. They will have until October 14 and a tricky Euro 2016 visit to Denmark to mould or, if necessary, kick this Seleção into minimally acceptable shape. Phil Town