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A new dawn for Portugal: Santos fails to engineer a successful Qatar 2022 campaign

Portugal has been earmarked as one of the top favourites to win the trophy at Qatar 2022, but one of their glaring weaknesses was the manager’s role going into the competition. It is not a conclusion, rather than the result of plenty of talk in Portuguese media and the fans’ opinion, which could have been proven easily wrong in the tournament, especially after Portugal became one of the first teams to earn tickets to the knockout phase of the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

It may sound counterintuitive, especially as Fernando Santos was the coach that helped Portugal deliver some excellent performances at the UEFA EURO 2016, when the scrappy European side was crowned champions for the first time in their history. But nobody forgets that Portugal only had a single win in that tournament and they always played a very tactical brand of football, with a focus on defence, rather than the attack.

Since that moment, Portugal has underperformed mightily and the exit in the quarter-finals of Qatar 2022 against Morocco, where they were clear favourites, only puts the writing on the wall. Santos, who has still a contract until December 2024, will probably fall victim after Portugal underperformed once again.

Born in Lisbon in 1954, Santos was the oldest manager entering the competition at Qatar 2022, with his vast experience trumping other coaches in the tournament. He was a former defender – hence his idea of football – yet he has never represented Portugal as a player.

He was always going to be involved in football, as his father was a huge Benfica fan, taking the young Fernando to the “Da Luz” on the inauguration day of the new stadium, on 1 December 1954, when the Portuguese coach was only 40 days old.

“My father was a car accessories salesman and even had an industry with other partners. My mother was a housewife. My parents were together until the end. We went to watch football every weekend. They always had a captive place, they were completely passionate about Benfica,” said Santos in an interview for “SAPO”.

While young Fernando was trying to become a football player, his parents always scolded him and told him that school is more important. This is why Santos has a degree in electrotechnics and telecommunications.

“I always liked math. And I didn’t go to high school, I went to technical schools, once I took an electrician fitter course. At the age of 15 already I had my professional electrician’s license. Then I followed into electrotechnics and communication and it all went from there,” adds Santos.

But football was always going to be his main passion. As a player, he did not achieve much. Diving into management, Santos started at Estoril, where he spent 19 years as a player and as a manager and transitioned to FC Porto, Sporting and Benfica, coaching all the three powerhouses of Portuguese football.

After some stints in Greece, he was also offered the position of Greece national team’s coach, which he took and managed the side between 2010 and 2014, when Portugal came calling and he could not say no.

It might have had something with maths that really helped Santos achieve greatness as a manager, as the coach needs to take split decisions in just seconds to improve his team.

He was hailed as a national hero in 2016, when he won the UEFA EURO, but Portugal’s ambition and boasting a player like Cristiano Ronaldo meant that a single trophy was never going to be enough.

This is why Santos probably knew that Qatar 2022 was always going to be the last dance, win or lose. With Ronaldo setting up a media storm, after an interview that scolded his club, Manchester United, Santos had a huge problem on his hands.

It was either start Ronaldo during Qatar 2022 or risk playing without him and be criticised by former players and fans alike. He started with the former, but ended the tournament with the latter option, which set Portugal alight.

The loss against Morocco, where Portugal failed to produce nearly as much as needed on the offensive end was a true disappointment, that left a country in tears and Santos hanging by the skin of his teeth.

“If we take two persons that were the most upset, it is Cristiano Ronaldo and me. Of course, we are upset, but that is part of the job of the coach and the player,” said Santos, without showing any regret that he benched his captain.

For a single moment, Santos’ maths might have been proven wrong. At first, Portugal needed a play-off to qualify for Qatar 2022, after losing the last match of the Qualifiers against Serbia. They made it through, but it was a huge red flag.

Now, in the tournament, Portugal missed the chance of helping Ronaldo win the World Cup and Santos was the sacrificial lamb.

“You can’t win a World Cup with Cristiano Ronaldo on the bench. Win against Switzerland? Excellent! But can you do that in every game? No. Leaving Cristiano Ronaldo on the bench was a mistake, this defeat is the responsibility of the management and the manager,” said former Portugal star Luis Figo.

A list of replacements has already been drawn by Portugal and Santos looks set to end his cycle after eight years, with good and bad. If only football was like maths…

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