Paris (AFP) – Cristiano Ronaldo reigns over the football pitch but Fernando Santos calls the shots behind the scenes.
The dynamic goalscorer and coach duo have taken Portugal to the Euro 2016 final and given it a chance to become the latest little nation to upset the continent’s giants.
After Denmark beat Germany in 1992 and Greece beat Portugal in Lisbon in 2004, the Portuguese now dream of upsetting France in their national stadium on Sunday under Santos’ guidance.
Ronaldo’s threat has grown with each match at the European Championship final while the 61-year-old Santos has taken the strain and made sure Portugal come back stronger each time they have ridden their luck.
Santos, who built his career with top clubs in Portugal — Benfica, Sporting Lisbon and Porto — and in Greece as well as the Greek national side, said Sunday’s final “will be the high point of my career.”
“It is my country, my flag, my fatherland, so from a personal point of view it is very important for me,” he said of the achievement of reaching the Euro showdown.
Santos has dramatically changed Portugal’s luck and outlook since taking over as coach in September 2014.
Portugal had lost their first Euro 2016 qualifying game 1-0 to Albania.
Santos took over in controversial circumstances, facing an eight-match touchline ban after being sent off when managing Greece at the 2014 World Cup.
He was accused of verbally abusing Australian referee Ben Williams when Costa Rica beat his side.
Appeals to FIFA and the Court of Arbitration for Sport saw the ban cut to two matches, with two suspended.
– Burden off Ronaldo –
Santos’s luck has stayed with him. And he has also found the right way to build a team around a genius like Ronaldo. The country won seven straight competitive matches to win their qualifying group.
He has taken the burden off Ronaldo’s shoulders in a way that eminent predecessors like Paulo Bento, Carlos Queiroz and Luis Felipe Scolari could not.
Ronaldo, three-time world player of the year, and owner of a truckful of football records, now has a chance to win his first major international trophy.
Portugal drew against Iceland, Austria and Hungary in Group F and needed an extra-time goal to beat Croatia in the last 16.
The team were criticised. But Santos shrugged it off. When Ronaldo does not perform then the likes of Ricardo Quaresma, Nani, Pepe and now teenager Renato Sanches can stand in. If it takes an ugly win then so be it.
“I have always seen Portugal as a team. Sometimes we have played better than the others, but I think the match against Croatia was of strategic importance,” he said.
“It does not matter to us whether it is spectacular or not. Sometimes you play in an unspectacular way and you win. Other times you play very spectacularly and you lose.”
Ronaldo finally produced a classic performance in the 2-0 win over Wales — scoring one goal and making one for Nani.
The star striker said he wants to be “crying with joy” at the Stade de France on Sunday. Santos says he wants to “strengthen” Ronaldo with some of the characteristics of the other players in the squad.
“You cannot either ask Cristiano to play as a winger in defence because, he makes such an effort attacking, being the best player in the world, the most prolific goal scorer, he cannot behave like a defender.”
Santos may be inspired by Greece.
Greece beat Portugal on home territory in the final of the 2004 Euro — and reduced Ronaldo to tears.
And Santos inspired a Greece team short on individual talent to the knockout rounds at Euro 2012 and the 2014 World Cup. They were already great achievements.
– Wealth of options –
And Santos has the weapons alongside Ronaldo to win on Sunday.
Much is now expected of Bayern Munich’s new 35 million-euro ($40 million) purchase Sanches. Quaresma and Pepe have come into their own in the team.
The key to Portugal’s success is therefore likely to be whether Santos can maintain the organisation and defensive structure that has brought his team to the gates of the Stade de France.
“Two years ago we set the target to get here,” he said.
“We told each other that we had to do our utmost to get to France and reach this final. We have worked like crazy to get here. Now we have a final to play and you know that a final is not played, it is won.”
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