There's no place like home
If you want your goalkeeper to have one temperamental attribute above all others, then calmness is probably it. When Sporting Clube de Portugal's goalkeeper and captain Rui Patricio speaks to ESPN FC, it is the morning after the night that saved the job of his head coach, Ricardo Sa Pinto, but he appears unperturbed by the tumult surrounding club and boss in recent days. "We're professional footballers and we just have to be prepared for anything that could happen," he says with considerable sanguine.
Monday evening saw Sporting win their first Liga game of the season, 2-1 at home to Gil Vicente, with Ricky van Wolfswinkel heading the winner amid a frenetic ending in which they played with a virtual quintet of attackers at times - a mono version of the club's famous Five Violins, if you will.
Yet Patricio has already experienced a lot for a 24-year-old goalkeeper. He made his debut for the Sporting first-team as an 18-year-old in Madeira, when he saved a penalty against Newcastle United's current Europa League rivals Maritimo. Patricio is the veteran of over 200 senior matches for Sporting and is approaching the second anniversary of becoming Portugal's first choice goalkeeper, all in the thick of a difficult time for the Lisbon club. Sa Pinto is the sixth head coach Patricio has played under since making his debut.
So the club is lucky to have this one very valuable constant. Patricio's dependability has not gone unnoticed around Europe, and there was a degree of concern among the club's supporters when he began Euro 2012 with just a year left on his contract at the Estadio Jose Alvalade. A collective sigh of relief followed the later signing of an extension to 2017, reportedly almost quadrupling his hitherto-modest wages.
Patricio's head was never turned by the links to Arsenal, Manchester United and Milan. "It was always my main aim to stay at Sporting," he insists. "This is my home. I feel very good here and for me it's a great honour to play for Sporting." It says something for his grounded attitude that Patricio was happy to stay after an impressive Euro 2012, which almost turned into the tournament of a lifetime for him and his colleagues.
"It was a unique experience to play in a competition as prestigious as this," he says, "and I felt so proud. I think any player who played in the Euros would feel the same." If the fact that Portugal pushed eventual champions Spain to the limit in the semi-final and spurned chances to finish off their Iberian neighbours still burns, the goalkeeper hides it well
"Like you said, it's three months ago now," he shrugs. "It's not worth the bother nourishing thoughts of what might have been. All we can do now is think about how we're going to get to the World Cup." Quickly refocusing on the present will serve Portugal well as they aim for Brazil. If they were in any doubt over the potential perils of resting on their laurels, then the scare of the opening match of the campaign - a narrow 2-1 victory in Luxembourg - removed it.
"We didn't have a great match there," Patricio admits, "but we came up against a team that defended really well. The important thing was to just come away with a win whatever the situation, and that's what happened in the end." Sporting's skipper is not one for shirking responsibility on or off the pitch; he deals in circumspection, not unnecessary flourish. "In qualifying it's not enough to play well," he says. "Only winning is good enough, and that's all that counts." Patricio accepts Russia will be a major rival - "we know they have a really strong team" - but insists Portugal's aim is unwavering en route to the 2014 World Cup. "The objective remains the same," he says. "To win every game, and guarantee finishing first (in the group)."
Russia, of course, is a country that has taken ownership of a few column inches in Portugal of late, with Porto's Hulk and Axel Witsel of Sporting's city rivals Benfica both making the move to Zenit St Petersburg in big-money transfers. So do these big losses equal more pressure on Sporting to take the opportunity for a title push this season? "We're not bothered about who's joining or who's leaving other teams," tempers Patricio. "We just have to worry about ourselves." Neither does the Sporting academy product wish to get involved with talking about the politics of overseas purchases instigated by current president Luis Godinho Lopes. "It's all down to the board to deal with that," he flatbats.
The skipper is more open on his own team's difficulties in the Liga's opening weeks. "The problem has simply been a lack of goals," he says. "We have an excellent team, we try to play very good football, but we haven't managed to score as many goals as we've deserved to - the ball hasn't wanted to go in. I really believe that yesterday's (Monday's) game will be the start of something and now Sporting can go to register many more wins."
Who knows - if Sporting recapture the spark of Sa Pinto's initial months in charge, ESPN viewers may even catch up with them in the Europa League later in the season. Patricio may be remembered for his excellent save from opposite number Joe Hart which saw Sporting past Manchester City last season, but more than just moments of anecdotal richness will be needed to better the agonising semi-final exit to Athletic Bilbao.
"We know how close we were to getting to the final," Patricio nods, "and that we played really well in a lot of the games in this competition. Unfortunately it didn't happen for us. This year, we're just thinking about qualifying from the group for now, but if we can progress further, then we can start thinking about doing better than last year."
Whatever the uncertainties at the Alvalade at present, Sporting are at least building from the back in exemplary fashion.
Rui Patricio wears the PUMA PowerCat 1.12 gloves and evoSPEED 1FG boots.