25 June ~ The Mexican city of Saltillo has special significance for the Portuguese. The selecção was installed there during the 1986 World Cup, but went through the whole gamut of "things that could possibly go wrong in preparation for a World Cup campaign". Hotel and training facilities were poor, no serious friendly games had been arranged, local female "fans" had virtually free access to the players who threatened strike action over daily expenses and win bonuses. An opening 1-0 victory over England appeared to belie the effect that the state of chaos must have been having on the team, but subsequent defeats to Poland (1-0) and Morocco (3-1) condemned Portugal to an early and ignominious exit.
"Saltillo" has since become a by-word for behind-the-scenes disorganisation and indiscipline. Reference to it has resurfaced in the last couple of weeks because of what's been going on in the Portugal camp this time around. Nani, seen as an important weapon given his useful season with Man Utd and decent performances in Portugal's pre-tournament friendlies, injured his shoulder in the penultimate training session in Lisbon, performing an acrobatic overhead kick. He was taken to South Africa, but before the opening game it was announced that the injury was so serious that he would be heading home.
Cue rumours on the Portuguese blogs and question marks in the media. He must have been shipped out to avoid doping tests. No, he'd had a run-in with coach Carlos Queiroz. The Portuguese Football Federation (FPF) weren't helping; none of the medical staff came forth to give a clear explanation of the injury. And upon his arrival back in Lisbon, Nani declared that he'd be fine within a week. This was startling. Queiroz had insisted on taking Pepe, injured since December, in the faint hope that he might get fit, and he couldn't keep on such a key player as Nani? The FPF PR machine got to Nani, who retracted what he'd said. What he'd meant was that he'd be fit to lead a normal life within a week. The rumours remained (and remain) unquelled.
Then it was Deco's turn. Substituted in Portugal's opening match against Ivory Coast, he strode directly to the dressing room. On the way to the team bus later, he was scathing: "Why was I substituted? You'll have to ask the coach. I felt fine. First he asked me to play on the right, something I've never done in my career because I'm not a wide player. And then he took me off." The next day, there was another retraction. He'd spoken in the heat of the moment and everything was tickety-boo between him and Queiroz. Funnily enough, Deco missed the second game against North Korea with a hip injury; the blogs were sceptical.
Then, North Korea happened. The Portuguese have a saying to express wild swings of attitude: "It's either 8 or 80." Eight was the mood before Monday, 80 the mood afterwards. Sports daily A Bola's front page headline after the 7-0 drubbing was Perfect! and Record's Out Of This World. Suddenly a whole nation believes again and recent controversies have conveniently been forgotten... for the time being. It will be 80 in Portugal until at least the Round of 16, for which Portugal cannot, surely, fail to qualify now. Phil Town