A fragile nation await U.S. showdown
José Pedro runs one of the many thousands of crammed little newspaper kiosks that line the squares and streets of Lisbon. Like the English, the Portuguese are avid readers of newspapers. Unlike their northern cousins, the biggest daily seller is a newspaper almost wholly given over to football, with a few desultory pages at the back for minority interests like hockey on roller skates and people driving mechanised vehicles too fast.
José Pedro's stall sits on the corner of Praça de Entrecampos, one of the city's great pivotal points, where commuter traffic swells down Avenida Forças Armadas and besuited bodies throng the pavements. I am behind a woman waiting my turn to buy A Bola, the nation's favourite journal. She shouts above the crackling din of the traffic, "Any of those World Cup posters in yet, Zé?" José Pedro casts the woman a glance shot through with a combination of disdain and surprise. "No, none of those things. We won't be needing anymore of those. It's all rotten, all rotten out there."
The woman fades into the hum of bodies and I get to buy my paper. It is full of analysis, comment and careful discussion of the minutiae, as any self-respecting football journal should be, reproducing José Pedro's rough-hewn language with the educated expression and the well-placed bon mot of men of letters. But, dress it up all you like -- whether it be the man on the street or the boys and girls with the keyboards -- Paulo Bento's Portugal now have an interesting challenge to keep everyone on board.
Notoriously fickle at the best of times, patience in some quarters is running thin after the national side's disastrous entry into World Cup 2014. With four goals conceded to a rampantly efficient Germany, an utterly needless red card leading to Pepe's suspension for the forthcoming crunch game against the U.S., and a set of injuries that would make the hardworking staff at nearby Hospital de Santa Maria wince, Portugal have truly started this tournament by putting their foot right in it. If there were an early geographical booby prize, Iberia would be stepping onto the rostrum right now.
When the Portuguese are not talking about food, football and politics are the nation's dual passions. Like a "Lord of the Rings" plotline, there is fire and there is darkness, there are avengers, and there are those who mean ill, and if you've got a minute or two (which everyone has in this calm and beautifully slow-paced city), there's always an opinion or two to share.
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This is Southern Europe, however. You are given a chance, when you sin, to redeem yourself. It is the Catholic way. And so for Bento, the coach with the tactical hand brake always half on, there is still a weak light in the tunnel. For Portugal's players -- feted before they left for Brazil and named as conquistadores on departure for the old colonial lands -- there is also still more than a little hope that this can be turned around. But time is short and patience is thinning to a thread. Bento, in one of his epic moments of neither-here-nor-there, suggested Thursday that "now is not the moment to change everything, but it is the moment to change something".
Sometimes you get the feeling a bath sponge might produce a greater wave of motivational pull than Bento. Yet, in a way, he is of course right. Bento clearly has his favourites. He sticks to a pattern, a team, a squad and a plan. When it fails, he tries it again. But this time it will be different. He will have to move a little, give a little ground. He cannot stick to the familiar. His side will be shorn of four first-choice players, whether he likes it or not, before we even consider what his reaction might be to the thunderclap of conceding four goals in your first outing.
Left back Fábio Coentrão's tournament is over. Goalkeeper Rui Patrício, a nervous and hamstrung figure against Germany, is also out until at least the round of 16, as is trundling centre-forward Hugo Almeida. The coach who loves stability and familiarity will have to make at least four changes to his side. Along with that, he may have to change the shape of the whole operation, too. His side was swamped in midfield, an area where there was precious little creativity. The left side, where Coentrão and Ronaldo usually run tramlines into the turf, was barren, a wasteland of missed passes and missing support.
On the opposite flank, Nani returned to headless chicken mode, so desperate in his urges to find the all-conquering Cristiano that his surges into opposition territory were marked by sudden stops to look for his bejeweled comrade. Never mind that somebody else was better-placed, the ball needed to be played to the captain.
It is all or nothing against the United States. The stakes are high. For Bento, as for José Pedro in his kiosk on the square and for the rest of this football-mad country, there is still time for redemption for those prepared to change their ways.