Opinion: Standing up for Fernando Santos - Breaking down the Bandwagon

Euro 2020 is rapidly fading into the distance as supporters of 23 nations continue to ponder what went wrong. Fortunately, there is just over 16 months until a chance at redemption at the 2022 World Cup.

Many Portuguese ‘supporters’ are hoping that the likely campaign in Qatar will be undertaken without Fernando Santos. The Seleção head coach has come under severe criticism from all corners of the football world.

With a contract running until July 2024 and the support of the squad, there is next to no chance Santos won’t be on the touchline in Qatar. That won’t stop many from persisting with the relentless criticism aimed at the most successful manager in the history of Portuguese football.

PortuGOAL’s Matthew Marshall argues the case for sticking with Santos. 

Long wait for a trophy

Portugal had to wait a long time to win their first major trophy. Otto Glória couldn’t get it done at the 1966 World Cup despite Eusébio scoring nine goals, the third placed finish in England remaining their best effort at the big dance.

Who would have predicted then that Portugal’s next two excursions to the World Cup would be in 1986 and 2002?

The European Championship was always going to be Portugal’s best opportunity to break the duck. Semi-final appearances in 1984 and 2000 were followed by the 2004 debacle when Luiz Felipe Scolari’s side couldn’t beat Greece in the final in Lisbon, despite an attack featuring Luís Figo, Deco, Ronaldo and Pauleta.

Paulo Bento’s side reached the semi-finals at Euro 2012, beaten in a penalty shootout by Spain who went on to beat Italy 4-0 in the final.

The man who got it done was Fernando Santos. Few picked Portugal to beat France in the Euro 2016 final, especially after Ronaldo’s early injury in Paris, but a spirited performance and Éder’s moment of magic secured the long awaited silverware.

In the two major tournaments since, a 93rd minute penalty to Iran at the 2018 World Cup saw Portugal forced into the tough side of the draw. They more than matched Uruguay in the Round of 16 but Edinson Cavani inspired the South Americans to a 2-1 win.

Euro 2020 saw Portugal suffer another Round of 16 exit. Once again they fell into the wrong side of the draw, more than matched Belgium but succumbed to Belgium’s only shot on target.

The defeats to Uruguay and Belgium were like millions of football matches that could have gone either way.

Thanks for Euro 2016

Despite the success at Euro 2016 and the 2018-19 UEFA Nations League, it appears the majority are lining up to say adeus to Senhor Santos.

They say he is too pragmatic, too defensive and unable to get the best from one of the most talented squads Portugal has ever produced. They gorged themselves to the brink in 2016 and are still rocking up to the buffet every major tournament expecting a banquet.

It’s like 2016 never happened. The failings of the teams featuring Eusébio and Luís Figo long forgotten.

Bloated on Portugal’s success, the pack mentality has kicked in and the bandwagon is bursting at the seams, Santos a victim of the expectation that he himself largely created.

Football mirrors life

The reason most of us love football is because it mirrors life. Much of the pain, heartbreak, anticipation, joy and excitement we experience in life is replicated in football. Memories of watching special matches live with us forever.

In football and life people generally make mistakes, attempt to learn from them, bounce back and move forward with optimism.

Another similarity is the camaraderie between families and football teams. We stick by our family through good and bad and it’s the same way with our football team, especially when it’s a national team.

Mistakes and criticism

Every manager makes mistakes, what defines them is their ability to recognise and correct them. Santos has shown time and time again that he has that ability.

Santos made adjustments in 2016. From the Round of 16 to the final Cédric Soares replaced Vieirinha at right-back and José Fonte replaced Carvalho in central defence.

André Gomes started the first four games and was replaced by Renato Sanches from the quarter-finals. Adrien Silva started every match from the Round of 16 after staying on the bench for all three group games.

In short, Santos shuffled the pack significantly at Euro 2016, and that undoubtedly was a huge reason for the eventual triumph.

Santos’ biggest blemish in charge of Portugal was the disastrous display in the 4-2 defeat against Germany in Munich a month ago. There is no doubt about it.

The magnitude of the match, an apparent abandonment of assessment and preparation. It was a horror show for most of the 90 minutes and the main stain on his record in almost seven years in charge.

Does he deserve to be sacked for that match? Paulo Bento lost 4-0 to Germany at the 2014 World Cup, going out in the group stage and lasted one more match.

But once again Santos made adjustments. We saw Danilo and William together, then Danilo, then Palhinha. We saw Bruno Fernandes twice, then Renato Sanches. João Moutinho started the last two matches. Santos gave João Félix 34 minutes to make a difference.

Portugal bounced back with credible performances against World Cup champions France and FIFA World No.1 ranked team Belgium. The football Gods were not smiling on Portugal in the 1-0 defeat Sevilla, that’s just how the game works.

You could argue André Silva deserved more than 36 minutes, and Sanches should have started every game. You could say Félix should have been recovering from surgery instead of in the squad.

Félix clearly was not 100% at Euro 2020, but must have given Santos some indication that he could come off the bench if required in an attempt to change a game.

It’s easy to see why so many slaughter Santos for failing to get more from Bernardo Silva and Bruno Fernandes. English managers struggled to get the best from Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard.

You can bet that getting the best from Bernardo Silva, Bruno Fernandes, Sanches, Jota, Ronaldo, Félix, Pedro Neto and André Silva has been and will continue to be at the forefront of Santos’ mind.

As regards the continual attack on Santos’ perceived style of football, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

My memories of Euro 2016 are dominated by continually advancing in the tournament, the anticipation building for each successive match and the celebrations after beating France in the final. They did what they had to do to win and that’s it.


Luck plays a big role in international tournaments. Not only in individual matches, but the draw and route to the final. Portugal enjoyed such luck in 2016, but not in 2018 or 2020.

There is luck with injuries, which players are available and which players can keep their momentum going after long and demanding seasons with their clubs.

Were Italy lucky to play inferior teams in the group stage, all in Rome? Were they lucky that Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci were on the pitch from the quarter-finals to the final? Were they lucky after beating Austria in extra time and winning two consecutive penalty shootouts against Spain and England?

Were Portugal unlucky that João Cancelo and Pedro Neto missed out, that João Félix couldn’t recover from injury to make a meaningful impact? Would Portugal have reached the final if they were in Germany’s side of the draw?

Germany, Joachim Löw and parallels

I wrote about Joachim Löw after the 2018 World Cup and suggested the best thing for German football would be his resignation. Germany were woeful in Russia.

From the opening defeat to Mexico to the defeat against South Korea, they were so bad in transition and so easily hit on the counter-attack, it was painful to watch. Löw showed absolutely no ability to recognize the mistakes or correct them and they were embarrassingly eliminated in the group stage.

After being given a new contract shortly before the World Cup and his belief that he could turn it around, Löw held on for another three years.

After Germany’s exit at Euro 2020, Löw said: “I take full responsibility. Every coach makes mistakes and I’m no exception.” After 15 years in charge, he will ultimately be remembered for delivering the 2014 World Cup.

An interesting point to note is what team manager Oliver Bierhoff said about the transition from Löw to Hansi Flick. “We're looking forward to seeing how the team develops under Hansi Flick's tutelage. We’ve all seen how Bayern Munich played football and we'd like to see that too, but the most important thing is to be successful.”

The difference between Löw 2018 and Santos 2020 is that Portugal had one shocker, but they recovered and held their own against two elite teams favoured by many to win the title.

Germany had three shockers in 2018 and didn’t even reach the knockout rounds. Their third game was equally as bad as the first.

Other Euro 2016 managers

Gareth Southgate has come under similar criticism to Santos for playing pragmatic, defensive and boring football. Do you seriously think Three Lions supporters would have been criticising his style of football had the penalty shootout produced a different outcome at Wembley?

What about Frank de Boer. Netherlands win all three group games before Matthijs de Ligt was sent off in the 55th minute against Czech Republic with the match goalless. Frank may or may not be a good manager, but at Euro 2020 was he unlucky?

Roberto Martínez. Belgium go 3-0 in the group stage, playing Russia and Denmark on home soil. Beat Portugal but lost Eden Hazard and had Kevin De Bruyne diminished. A narrow defeat to Italy. Should Martínez be sacked?

Luis Enrique. Spain dominate Sweden and Poland but can’t win. Thrash a sloppy Slovakia 5-0, blow a 3-1 lead against Croatia before two extra time goals. Penalty shootout win against Switzerland despite playing against 10 men for 43 minutes. Penalty shootout defeat to Italy. Should Enrique be sacked?

Careful what you wish for

Changing a coach can also bring problems and ruin chemistry built over years.

There is no guarantee another manager could replace Santos and instantly turn it around. Despite the disappointments, there is no sign of Portugal completely falling apart like at the end of the Queiroz and Bento eras.

The coach appears to retain the backing of the players, and that factor cannot be underestimated. I strongly believe that if the Portuguese Football Federation gathered Cristiano Ronaldo, Pepe, José Fonte, João Moutinho and Rui Patrício in a room and discussed any potential plans to sack Santos before Qatar, there would be a complete outrage from Portugal’s elder statesmen.

If it makes you happy to blame Santos every time Portugal don’t perform to your expectations, go ahead. If you think he is finished and another manager could do a better job, that’s your right.

But my suggestion is to treat your national team like family, stick with the players, Santos, and have faith that he can take Portugal to the 2022 World Cup and win the trophy. Let’s reconvene and reassess after Qatar.

Related: PortuGOAL EURO2020 podcast: Portugal dream ended by Belgium