Phil Town analyses one of the biggest absentees from the upcoming World Cup

C’est fini blubbed the sports daily A Bola. And so it was. Perennial under-achievers Portugal had once again managed to snatch bitter failure from the jaws of certain success. They had been drawn in what seemed on the face of it an eminently accessible group. Second place at least looked a formality behind Germany but ahead of apparent pushovers Ukraine, Armenia, Albania and Northern Ireland. But a weak start against the first two, dropping five points from a possible six, made qualification an uphill struggle from the outset, and the Portuguese were left depending on third party favours which never materialized.

So the ‘Golden Generation’, the players who had won two consecutive World Youth cups at the turn of the decade, were to be left out in the World Cup wilderness just when they had reached perfect maturity. It wasn’t long before blame was being dished out.

The Portuguese being a fatalistic lot, it was bad luck that got the first dollop: a missed penalty in the 0-0 draw in Armenia and the ludicrous sending-off of Rui Costa which turned the tide in another draw in Germany. A win in either game would have seen Portugal safely through to at least the play-offs. But the natives needed something less abstract than fate to nail to the wall, and this something has taken the extravagantly moustached form of coach Artur Jorge.

He had come to the job via a coaching career of distinct ups and downs. The ups included a European Cup and three national titles with FC Porto and a good spell at Paris St. Germain. The downs a disastrous stint at Benfica, whereby hangs a tale. Replacing local hero Toni after the 1993-94 season when Toni had led an indifferent squad to the national title (Benfica’s last), he had his work cut out from day one. Benfica were third that season, losing an unthinkable seven games, and he lasted a mere three games of the following season before being shown the door. Later, as national team coach and when it might have been wiser to practise a little diplomacy, he famously called the revered national institution that is Benfica a circus. King Artur effectively began his reign, then, without the moral and actual support of the whole of the Benfica universe. Two situations were soon to remove the affiliation of Sporting Lisbon folk as well.

Jorge came to the job after managing Switzerland in Euro ’96 – but he hadn’t got them there, that was achieved by Roy Hodgson who had then been headhunted by Inter. At the start of the qualifying campaign, the Football Federation vetoed AJ’s choice of assistant, former Sporting coach Octavio Machado and forced him to take on relatively green cousins Raul and Rui Aguas. It might have been expected that AJ would stand by his man, but his capitulation at this early stage made an enemy of Octavio and set out the flimsiness of his store. This real lack of authority was brought emphatically home on the eve of Portugal’s trip to Northern Ireland in March. Dropped from the squad, Sporting’s favourite bad boy Ricardo Sá Pinto was invited by the national team’s psychologist (!) to visit the training ground to wish the boys luck. Arriving there, he proceeded to punch and kick Artur to within an inch of total, abject humiliation. Far from rallying sympathetic support round the coach, however, the incident seemed to have the opposite effect and Sá Pinto instantaneously became a popular hero.

At the last group game against Northern Ireland, along with the white hankies signifying the fans’ displeasure at the performance and the overall result of the campaign, a huge banner read ‘Congratulations, Sá Pinto’. It was his birthday, yes, but the sub-text was clear: ‘the bastard deserved it’. Neither the player nor Sporting were to apologize for the incident, although Sá Pinto has at least been banned since.

So support for AJ, and by extension for the national team, was weakened on two important fronts (Benfica and Sporting), producing a disturbing lack of national pride in the team. The attendance of only about 30,000 for the last game against Northern Ireland in the 90,000 + capacity Stadium of Light included a large number of youngsters who got in with freebies or cheapies.

But if it was hard to see the players shunned, especially after their stunning display in Germany, it was less difficult to feel no sympathy whatsoever for the Moustache, apart from a natural revulsion at the physical and psychological punishment he took at the hands and feet of Sá Pinto. He has maintained throughout the lofty air of one who feels he’s doing the nation a special favour by being in the job. He has also been patently unable to mould any kind of consistent team structure, spirit or momentum from what were, by anyone’s reckoning, exceptional parts (Baía, Sousa, Rui Costa, João Pinto, Figo... the list goes on). As one commentator quite aptly put it, his 12-year-old son could have picked the team from what was on offer. A coach is expected to do more, and Artur Jorge just didn’t – a situation exemplified by the team’s fatal complacency in those early games and, revealingly, his reckless affirmation that Portugal “didn’t need to win against Armenia”.

So what does the future hold ? Well, Artur Jorge’s contract runs until July of next year and after intimating that he would see the contract out, it now seems that he’ll go quietly, possibly to a large club with more money than sense. After the dust settles, though, the saddest fact for the Portuguese will remain that their ‘Golden Generation’ will mostly be in their thirties by the time the next World Cup comes around, and the next generation just doesn’t seem to be such a rich seam to mine. Portugal have only ever qualified for two World Cups – in ’66 and ’86 – and it may be some time before they’re in such a good position to qualify again.

From WSC 130 December 1997. What was happening this month

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