Ex-electrician Santos happy to wire up 'ugly' Portugal
By Brian Homewood
MARCOUSSIS, France (Reuters - Portugal's failure to win over the neutrals on their way to the Euro 2016 final was never going to bother their down-to-earth coach Fernando Santos.
"I'm ugly by nature and I don't mind if I'm even uglier," he said at one point during Euro 2016. "I judge my team by whether we play well or badly, not by whether we are pretty or ugly." The 61-year-old, a qualified telecommunications engineer and electrician whose side face France in Sunday's final, is the unlikeliest of sporting heroes.
While his opposite number Didier Deschamps is a former World Cup winner, Santos had a modest playing career with provincial Portuguese clubs and gave up a job as a hotel's chief technician to go into football coaching.
Even now, he carries the air of a grumpy shopkeeper rather than the man who is within one match of making Portuguese football history by leading them to their first international title.
But below the dour exterior lies genuine warmth and a dry sense of humour. Relations with the media are certainly easier than under predecessors such as Paulo Bento and Carlos Queiroz, who said that the Portugal coach invariably ends up being “tortured and humiliated.”
Santos has managed to pull Portugal out of a rut, reduce their dependency on three-times world player-of-the-year Cristiano Ronaldo and rejuvenate a team that was somewhat long in the tooth.
When he took over in September 2014, Portugal had just suffered a group stage exit at the World Cup and kicked off their Euro 2016 qualifying campaign with a home defeat by Albania.
Santos immediately told the team that their target was to win Euro 2016 and opened the door to younger players who had found their way barred by Bento’s loyalty to the older generation.
Portugal went on to win their remaining seven qualifiers, all by single-goal margins, and are unbeaten in 13 competitive internationals under Santos.
Santos fielded more than 50 players in his first 18 months in charge and some, such as Joao Mario (23), Danilo (24), William Carvalho (24), Andre Gomes (22) and Renato Sanches (18), have become regular internationals.
He also recalled Ricardo Carvalho, 38, who had fallen out with Bento, and gave defender Jose Fonte his international debut at the age of 30.
"From the very first day, he gave us the idea of winning the European championship and the squad began to believe more and more that it was possible," said midfielder Joao Mario.
"Our team is a mixture of youth with some experience. It is the perfect combination. That is what the coach has brought."
Santos' own playing career was a thoroughly unremarkable one, spent mainly with Maritimo and Estoril, two unfashionable clubs in his homeland.
In the later years of his career, he divided the football with his hotel job and eventually took on the latter role fulltime.
But his employer was also president of second tier Estoril and invited Santos to take on that job on an interim basis. Santos stayed for seven years, leading the club to the first division. Although he was unceremoniously sacked in what he described as “the biggest body blow of my career”, he had found his vocation and went on to coach Portugal’s “big three” of Sporting, Porto and Benfica, plus AEK Athens, Panathinaikos, PAOK and the Greek national side.
Devoutly religious, he has managed to keep things in perspective throughout. "Football doesn't mean anything if we compare it to fatherhood or friendship," he said in one interview. "It is nothing.”
(Reporting by Brian Homewood. Editing by Adrian Warner.)