ROAD TO RUSSIA
Kings of Europe but Portugal are still World Cup outsiders
Lisbon — Portugal head to the World Cup as European champions but few would place them among the favourites in Russia.
Cristiano Ronaldo will spearhead the charge but what about their coach, Fernando Santos, who led the team to glory only two years ago?
Here, we take a closer look at Santos and how Portugal are set for the tournament. Santos enjoyed a decent, if unspectacular, playing career that was mostly spent with Estoril in the first, second and third tiers of Portuguese football.
In management, he has coached in Portugal, with giants Benfica, Sporting Lisbon and Porto, and Greece, where he was in charge of AEK Athens, Panathinaikos and finally the Greek national team at Euro 2012. They made the quarter-finals before losing to Germany.
Some would say Santos is the antithesis of attractive, attacking football, with his teams usually set up to defend first, maintain shape and frustrate opponents through discipline and hard work.
Under his leadership, Portugal won Euro 2016, scoring more than one goal in only two of their seven matches, but who could argue with the result? His team won the country’s first major tournament in its history.
Ronaldo and Santos go back a long way. Santos was in charge of Sporting when they sold Ronaldo to Manchester United in 2003.
Ronaldo enjoys a close relationship with the 63-year-old, who named the striker as captain during the European Championship in France. Zinedine Zidane had led Real Madrid to Champions League glory that year but Ronaldo voted for Santos as Fifa coach of the year.
"I have a good relationship with both my coaches," Ronaldo said. "I think in my shoes they would have voted the same."
It was more about who Santos left out, given he overlooked several players involved in the success of two years ago.
Barcelona’s Andre Gomes and Nelson Semedo missed out while Bayern Munich’s Renato Sanches was also dropped after a disappointing season in the English Premier League on loan at Swansea City. Lazio winger Nani and Lille striker Eder, who scored the winner against France in the Euro final, were also left disappointed.
That Portugal were trounced 3-0 in a friendly in March by the Netherlands, who failed even to qualify for the World Cup, does not bode well, but ageing or out-of-form players will hope to regain their rhythm in Russia.
One player who shows no sign of fading is Ronaldo and with him, of course, Portugal will always have a chance.
"Are these players stronger than the ones that won at the Euros? I’m not sure," Santos said. "But I have absolute confidence in this squad just as I did in the last one."