Portugal draws last breath of courage
Among the confusao and the complicacoes surrounding Portugal's somewhat limp 2014 World Cup campaign, a political shuffling can already be heard starting to dance in the dusty corners of a Campinas hotel room. Portugal arrived at the World Cup with reasonable belief that they could exit a difficult group and thereafter do some damage to the big egos likely to be arranged before them in the knockout stages. Carrying with them the world's best footballer, Cristiano Ronaldo, and two of his all-conquering Real Madrid teammates, Pepe and Fábio Coentrao, there was reasonable belief in the squad's ability to make an impression.
The first doubts may have surfaced during the preparation matches, where Ronaldo was conspicuous by his absence and an extremely limp 0-0 draw with Greece began to feed worrying signs into the system. These were offset somewhat by a thumping win over Ireland in New Jersey before the trip south to Brazil began in earnest. That the Irish have a squad these days that counts the likes of Stoke's Jon Walters as its mainstays did not seem to matter at the time. Portugal were on their way south to join the biggest show on Earth. Os Conquistadores (how embarrassing that moniker seems now) were arriving to plant the red and green flag on Brazilian territory.
It did not take long for adverse signs to appear. A 4-0 thrashing against group favourites Germany in the first game brought the house tumbling down. Suddenly injuries were more serious than expected, form was more off key than at first thought and legs were tired. Excuses flew through the night air like dragonflies on their undulating way to the riverside.
When the chance to redeem themselves against the United States was also spurned, things got serious. Now qualification hangs by a thread of unlikely thinness. Nobody in their right mind expects anything good to come of the clash with Ghana, a useful and mobile side who have already proved good enough to take a talented U.S. side to the wire and to be extremely unlucky not to have defeated the Germans in one of the World Cup's best games thus far.
Far from expecting the big victory that might aid an improbable passage to the knockout phase, many Portuguese now contemplate the possibility of defeat to the West Africans. And this is where the politics come in. Federation head Fernando Gomes has stated repeatedly that head coach Paulo Bento should, can and will continue in his job as treinador. Pushed by certain elements of the media, he was said to have "total confidence" in the coach and expected him to "continue the good work completed so far. Vice president Humberto Coelho had other words to describe the same relationship, however. "It is not my position to say what we will do next," he commented, "and all I can say is that we will analyse the situation and we will decide. We are not deaf to the things being said, but I do not see any reason to cancel the contract of the coach." Hardly matching his colleagues more stout affirmation, the words look dangerously close to the dreaded vote of confidence that is anything but.
Meanwhile, Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho, a man whose opinions are carefully listened to in Portugal, stated that the U.S. deserved to beat Portugal in a game that finished level thanks to a goal in the dying minutes by Silvestre Varela. "Mourinho?" asked Coelho. "He thought that the States could have won, but I have the opposite viewpoint." Football throws up different opinions, one as valid as the next. Some, though, appear to be made with conviction, others with political balance in mind.
With Bento's position strengthened by a contract renewal on the eve of the World Cup, all pointers would seem to indicate that he is set to continue. The ex-Sporting coach is a man of stubborn beliefs and strong convictions, but this will hold little sway if Portugal are soundly beaten by Ghana in Brasilia. He has already come under strong criticism for sticking to tried and tested ways, systems and indeed players, to the detriment of experimentation, risk and possible glory. The young legs of William Carvalho, Rafa and others have been used sparingly or not at all, while the in-form Ricardo Quaresma was not even invited onto the plane west.
It is late in the day. Europe's finest are returning home in droves, a fact which may in the end detract from the attention being given to the failings of Portugal. In a tournament of flowing football, exciting, fearless tactics, the likes of England, Spain, Italy and Portugal have been found wanting. The usual ghouls of heat, long domestic seasons and tired players will get their airing in the days to come, but for Bento and Portugal, it is about saving a little face against the upstarts of Ghana than really believing anything truly miraculous can come of all this. With a depleted and disoriented squad, we will see whether even this is possible now.