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Sep 9, 2010

Queiroz's long goodbye

The whole miserable Carlos Queiroz saga should come to an end in the coming days or weeks. Unfortunately, it will be a month or so too late, with Portugal's Euro 2012 qualification hopes already hanging by a thread.

Queiroz's own job has been similarly precarious ever since last week's ruling by Portugal's Anti-Doping Authority (ADoP), sentencing the national coach to a six-month suspension from his duties. He had already taken a month-long ban from the Portuguese Football Federation (FPF) for the now-infamous Covilha incident, when he swore at drug testers having not received prior notification of their visit, a ban causing him to miss the opening two qualifiers against Cyprus and Norway.

The crux of the extended ban is this; the FPF ban was for inappropriate language, while the longer one was for finding Queiroz guilty of disrupting the actual test, a far more serious offence. Queiroz has made it known he intends to appeal the ADoP ban to Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), though FIFA have already extricated themselves from any appeal involvement, and Secretary of State for Youth and Sport Laurentino Dias has already given his full backing to ADoP.

The FPF are either very thorough or very keen to make their point, or perhaps both - the document outlining their case against Queiroz runs to an astonishing 415 pages. It is assumed by many in Portugal that the authorities are keen between them to make the most of the situation in order to arrive at a point where Queiroz can be fired for misconduct - and therefore without any entitlement to compensation.

Whatever your views on the erstwhile Manchester United assistant's qualities (or lack thereof) as a number one, it would take a harsh critic to judge that a good coach, and man, deserves this death by a thousand cuts. Support for Queiroz within the football world has been overwhelming. At his FPF hearing in Lisbon last month, a stellar cast of character witnesses made personal appearances on his behalf including Sir Alex Ferguson, Luis Figo and even the constantly bickering Porto and Benfica presidents, Jorge Nuno Pinto da Costa and Luis Felipe Vieira.

Queiroz's current charges have also stood up for him. Valencia's Ricardo Costa called the FPF treatment of the coach "shameful" and accused the authorities of making a mountain out of a molehill, though recently the feeling within the squad is simply that an end desperately needs to be brought to this sorry show as soon as possible.

Tiago spoke for the majority after the Norway game. "Is the situation with the coach affecting us? Without doubt. It's a saga which has to be resolved as quickly as possible." The general public agree, with 82.5% of respondents to a survey this week by Portuguese sports daily O Jogo saying that Queiroz should go, just to put an end to the uncertainty. Only 31.5% thought the FPF should sack the coach, while another 17.6% thought the federation board should go to.

In the meantime Portugal are in this strange purgatory, with Queiroz's assistant Agostinho Oliveira running the team, though admitting the suspended coach has some input into squad choice and selection. The Euro qualifiers always arrive very quickly after the World Cup, and in the absorption with the Covilha affair, the FPF seem to have been caught on the hop, and it has showed.

The confusion in the ranks is clear. Portugal shipped as many goals in 90 minutes against Cyprus (ranked 63rd in the world by FIFA) in the opening qualifier as they had in the previous 19 matches. Even allowing for the absence of defensive midfield lynchpin Pepe, the midfield was a shapeless shambles, with the admittedly struggling Bruno Alves and Ricardo Carvalho left unprotected. The sparse crowd at the Estadio D. Afonso Henriques whistled in disbelief as the visitors hit Portugal on the break with embarrassing ease.

Eduardo, among the best goalkeepers at this summer's World Cup, has looked a bag of nerves and his ghastly mistakes were responsible for both Cyprus' late equaliser in Guimaraes, scored by Andreas Avraam, and Erik Huseklepp's winner for Norway four days later, as his tardy clearance broke to the striker from John Carew.

The uncertainty is already potentially fatal. Following defeat in Norway, Portugal have no margin for error whatsoever less than a week into their qualifying campaign, and will require a Herculean effort to pull things round - just as they did in the last two major tournament qualifying campaigns under Queiroz and Luiz Felipe Scolari before him. The feeling is growing that it will be third time unlucky.

Though left with a virtually impossible job, Oliveira has not helped himself in his efforts to find stability. The captaincy question has been germane ever since the likes of Figo criticised Cristiano Ronaldo's handling of the job, and it had been widely assumed that Bruno Alves would take over. Yet Oliveira passed over the Zenit defender and chose the admirable, if painfully shy, Ricardo Carvalho. When the coach criticised the team's "incompetent" defending against Cyprus, Alves reacted strongly. "We win, the victory isn't just down to the strikers, and in this way, the opposite is also true," he said. A rift with one of the group's leaders is not good news.

Meanwhile, we've had the bizarre spectacle of the coach paying to get in and watch the games. On Friday, Queiroz forked out €970 for a private box in Guimaraes, from which he watched the Cyprus match in the company of Antonio Simoes, recently relieved of his role with the FPF. Queiroz's choice of guest was a defiant political act in itself, having already politely declined offers of hospitality at the game from various players within the squad. He travelled to Oslo, and paid to watch the match against Norway, again at his own expense.

While he may have endured rotten luck as Portugal coach, Queiroz is on his last legs. Former Sporting boss Paulo Bento appears to have emerged as a candidate to become the next coach, and while he may not be everyone's ideal choice, at least he would represent moving on, because that's what Portugal must do.

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