Fernando Santos was yesterday nominated in a shortlist for the FIFA coach of the year award.

The Portuguese tactician must be considered a serious candidate to win the prestigious prize, having led Portugal to its first ever major tournament victory, winning Euro 2016 in the summer, beating hosts France in the final.

Leicester manager Claudio Ranieri, who oversaw the English club’s miraculous EPL victory, and Real Madrid’s Champions League winning coach Zinedine Zidane are other frontrunners to pick up the award, the winner of which will be announced on 9 January in Zurich.

PortuGOAL profiles Fernando Santos, the mastermind behind the Seleção’s greatest moment in international football.

 

The appointment of Fernando Santos to replace Paulo Bento as Portugal’s head coach in September 2004 was far from unanimous, and was not greeted with enthusiasm.

Bento had surprisingly survived the ignominious group stage exit in the Brazil World Cup, where his obdurate refusal to bring new faces into the team, despite the poor fitness and form of his first choices, had predictably disastrous results. The home defeat to Albania in the opening match of the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign was an embarrassment too far for the Portuguese Football Federation (FPF). Bento was dismissed and replaced by Santos, but the prevailing opinion was that the veteran coach had landed the job as much because of a lack of credible alternatives, rather than his own merits.

After all, Santos would not even be able to take his place on the bench for the foreseeable future as he was serving a FIFA ban for getting sent off as Greece coach in the World Cup defeat against Costa Rica, a suspension that in theory would run until and including the first match of Euro 2016.

Santos’ bold statements in his opening press conference as Portugal’s new coach did little to alter initial perceptions. “With the quality we have I believe Portugal can win Euro 2016. We should be confident and this is the ambition I have in accepting this challenge,” were, we now know, prescient words.

Faultless qualifying campaign

What did change people’s opinions about Santos were the results. Without playing sparkling football, the coach got Portugal through their qualifying campaign without a single hiccup: seven matches, seven wins, to comfortably top Group I. With a successful appeal to end his dugout ban midway through the campaign, suddenly the FPF’s decision to plump for Santos appeared an astute one.

A deeply religious man, the 62-year-old’s faith never wavered in Portugal’s capacity to go all the way at the tournament. “I told my family I would be staying in France until 11 July,” he repeated several times during the month in France, even after three draws in the group stage threatened to bring the campaign to a premature end.

But it was two other phrases that help explain how Santos guided Portugal to triumph. In that first press conference back in the dying embers of the summer of 2014 he said: “Every player who is eligible to play for Portugal has a chance of selection.”

Open-minded selection policy

He was as good as his word. Santos called up 53 players in his first year in charge, among whom were debutants Cédric Soares, João Mário, Adrien Silva, Raphael Guerreiro and José Fonte, all of whom would be starters in the final at the Stade de France, and a smattering of veterans who had been discarded such as Tiago Mendes, who contributed superbly during qualification, and Ricardo Carvalho and Ricardo Quaresma, who played significant roles in qualifying and in the tournament itself.

Santos’ willingness to pick players on form, to reward good performances and to be unafraid to make changes contrasted sharply with Bento’s ultra-conservative approach. At Euro 2012 Bento selected the exact same line-up for all of Portugal’s 5 matches at the tournament with one exception, Hugo Almeida coming in for the injured Hélder Postiga in the semi-final against Spain. Santos, on the other hand, used 21 of Portugal’s 23-man squad in France. Only the two back-up goalkeepers did not see the pitch. There were 5 different players in the line-up in the final in relation to Portugal’s tournament opener against Iceland.

The fact each player knew he had a chance of playing undoubtedly helped fortify the spirit of togetherness that has universally been acknowledged as the one single most important factor that led to Portugal’s triumph.

Building from the back

A second phrase that Santos repeated several times early in his reign deserves special mention. “If we remain focused and concentrated, no team will find it easy to beat Portugal.” The decision to implement a strategy built on the foundation of a rock solid back line, in many ways going against the Portuguese tradition for flair football and open attacking play, worked to perfection.

Amidst the outcry in much of the world’s media about a perceived dour brand of football, and the fact Portugal won only one game in 90 minutes (as if winning in extra time for some reason doesn’t count) it is easy to lose sight of the fact that there is beauty, skill and smartness in tactically negating and outwitting your opponent, granted as long as it’s your team that’s doing it.

Portugal conceded one goal in four matches in the knockout phase of the competition. As João Moutinho told PortuGOAL after the memorable night of 10 July 2016 in Paris: “What matters is winning, and that’s what we did. We managed to get the better of teams tactically, scoring the goals we needed to get the wins.”

Santos had a plan and put it into practice. Brilliantly.

by Tom Kundert

 

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