Fernando Santos is the coach of the Portuguese national team that won the Euro 2016 Championship - Portugal’s first major title at senior level.
This interview was made by the journalists Carlos Rias and Rogerio Azevedo and appeared in the sports daily A Bola (24/07/16).
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A Bola: You were decorated by the President of the Republic, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, after the victory at the Euros. Are many people addressing you as Comendador?
Fernando Santos: No, No. [laughs]. Nor do I think that anyone will ever address me in that way.
But do you like being a Comendador?
What I like is being Fernando Santos. I’ve always liked being who I am.
How many times have you re-watched the Final against France?
None. I think it’s the only game I haven’t re-watched. I will, for sure, when I get back from holiday. The days following the Final were full of such emotion that I didn’t have the head to watch the game again. Because the reception we got from the crowds when we arrived in Lisbon and that started at [the training camp at] Marcoussis was tremendous. They’re unforgettable images that make us eternally grateful to the Portuguese. It’s as if we had a full glass that after the victory in the Final we thought would start emptying a little.
And the emigrants in Marcoussis appeared …
Yes. The moments in the morning when we took the Cup to them for them to see it are really emotional. The tears begin to flow again and we get all sentimental. And everything starts to spill out.
And finally you arrive in Lisbon.
During the flight, knowing what was in store for us, the glass filled up again. I didn’t sleep or eat for three days. I wasn’t able to, as simple as that. It was all to do with the emotions. Many times I was at home alone and the tears appeared again. Either because I got a telephone call, or I met someone.
Then you went on holiday.
Yes. I went fishing, and there I forgot everything. Which was good. I got my head back into shape. And the emotions only came back when I spoke to the President, who I had a conversation arranged with. Now that I’m back at work, we’re getting into the rhythm again.
You’ve got rid of the adrenalin?
Yes. Which is good.
A few days ago, A Bola did an interview with Éder in which he says that the phrase “I’m only going back on the 11th” entered the minds of the players and never left. Was that phrase pre-meditated by you, or did it come out spontaneously?
It came out spontaneously. On the first day of training with the players, to prepare for my first qualifying game for the Euros, I wrote the objective on the white-board: ‘We want to be European Champions’. And there was a second phrase: ‘And we have to come first in the qualifying group’. Four years ago, yes, I tried to mark out a position with that phrase. The objectives were those: win the group and be European Champions.
The phrase “I’m only going back on the 11th, and to be feted” was said with another objective in mind?
Yes. It was said with the conviction that we were going to achieve that objective, provided we were all in tune. That phrase came out, but it could have been any other. And it was true: I’d told my family not to count on me before the 11th.
But with Spain, Germany England and Italy in the tournament, for example, you really needed great conviction to say that you’d only be going home with the Cup.
That’s the point. But in my first game, when we went to Denmark and won, I told my players: Don’t believe that there’s a team that can beat us easily. I said it with conviction: it’s hard for Portugal to lose games. Another very different question was whether we could win games or not. My talk before Albania or Armenia, for example, was the same: the names of the opponents count little for me. That’s why we’d play with the same rigour against Germany as against Armenia, for example.
Yes, without fear.
Not even against Spain, two-times European Champions?
Of course. Was I sure that we’d win against Spain? I don’t know. I know that it wouldn’t be easy for them to beat us.
What’s on the cards, from now on, for qualification for the 2018 World Cup?
The same things. I’m not going to change anything. If people think that because Portugal are European Champions I’m going to change my way of thinking, they’re mistaken. If my players think that because we’re European champions we’re going to be artistes, they’re mistaken. I’m not paid to put on a show.
There are those that don’t like that philosophy.
It’s mine. If they tell me that we’re going to play a friendly and the game’s going to finish 5-5 or 6-5, okay, let’s do it. Now, when we’re in a competition in which there are objectives, that’s secondary. Do you know what I wrote on a white-board?
At the top I wrote ugly and pretty, and underneath I wrote bad and good. And I explained: ugly has nothing to do with bad, and pretty has nothing to do with good. They’re different things.
What’s your philosophy?
I don’t want to play badly; I want to play well. I’ve always heard that those who play well have more chance of winning. Those who play badly lose. I’ve never heard that you win by playing pretty or ugly. That doesn’t exist.
But there are teams that play pretty and win.
I remember one day, when I was a kid, I saw Bayern play at the Luz. And there was a player I had an enormous admiration for: Beckenbauer. He was pure class. But I can’t forget that the great Beckenbauer pumped the ball into the stands three times. And I thought: How could a player of this quality do that?! But it’s reality. Playing well is often pumping the ball into the stands. It’s not taking the ball on the chest and giving it to the opposition to score a goal. There could be a time when you take it on the chest and dink it over the opponent, but the next nine times you take it on the chest and the opponent scores. I don’t want that, I’m not interested.
Let’s go forward in time. There will have to be renewal, especially in defence, because they’re all well over 30 and Ricardo Carvalho is 38.
It’s natural. I’ve always said that I don’t believe in revolutions. Or I do believe, but not in football [laughs]. It’s not age that’s going to dictate whether or not you have quality, whether or not you have ability.
But there are ends to cycles.
Yes, but that’s another thing. Everything’s going to happen naturally. When I came to the Seleção, the average age was 28; two years later, the average age is the same, 28. In other words, renewal is taking place because the average age has been maintained and some older players have come in. And now it’s 26 or 27. And it’s going to continue.
One thing is certain: you only get into the Seleção on merit. And you can have merit at 18, 27 or 38. Merit has no age. The Seleção is going to be open to all.
Not even Ricardo Carvalho, who will be 40 for the finals of the World Cup?
If he, at 40, is in the fullness of his qualities, what’s the problem? And the same goes for a kid of 18. Don’t forget that 12 of the players that were in France had never been to finals before. Has any team ever been to the finals of a major tournament with 12 uncapped players?
That was forgotten?
It wasn’t highlighted enough. Players who had just been runners-up at the U-21 Euros, and one that had been in the U-19s. And the majority of them were first-teamers.
Instead of Éder it was going to be André Silva [of FC Porto]?
I even went to Porto to see a high-intensity game: FC Porto v Sporting. But he didn’t play. What could I do? I had to think of many details. I thought of [Sporting winger] Gelson, for example, to be a mixer. But I still had Quaresma. I took two right backs: Vieirinha and Cédric. But I also looked at Vieirinha and saw in him a wide player, if needed.
Could the great game that Éder had in the Final – not just because of the goal but for the game he played – make you think about changing tactics and going 4-3-3 instead of 4-4-2?
I don’t think so. I don’t have a specific model, and I’ve already played 4-3-3. People say: ah, Portugal are dependent on Ronaldo. It’s not true. Portugal aren’t dependent on anyone, nor is anyone dependent on Portugal. But we have a player who’s worth 50 goals a season and who, in my opinion, isn’t a winger. He’s not a centre-forward, but nor is he a winger. One day, I could play 4-3-3, but not because Éder scored the goal. We’re not going to change things.
Before, no one believed in Éder and now we have to play 4-3-3 because of his goal?
Which Éder is the true one? The Éder that no one believed in, or the Éder of the Final?
The real Éder is the one who scored against Italy and played in the warm-up matches. Éder is someone that needs people to have faith in him. You just have to see the interviews he gave to understand. If you ask me whether Éder can be an undisputed first-choice, then I’d say no. At some moments he can be very important. He was in Denmark, for example, when he freed-up Cristiano.
And he was decisive in the Final.
Yes, he was. He had a great game and scored a great goal. If you ask me if I knew he would score, I’ll have to say that I didn’t know. I’m not a wizard. But he did tell me that he was going to score.
Apart from Éder, as a reference in attack, there’s André Silva [FC Porto] and Gonçalo Paciência [Académica] and not much more. It’s almost like a desert …
Let’s see – that’s the work of the clubs. And we can’t take any merit away from the clubs. In the Seleção, which has an important role to play, we have to develop the fantastic work that the clubs do. But increasingly in football, from my point of view, the concept that the game is kind of static is passé. Before we talked about ‘the pine tree’ [tall no. 9], but they’re not pine trees, and nor is the game table football. Today football is an increasingly dynamic game. This thing about 4-3-3 or 4-4-2 is very lyrical sometimes because it doesn’t exist in practice. Now, of course an area player is useful to a team, but at the moment we don’t have any players with those characteristics.
Isn’t it a worry that there’s beginning to be a shortage of central defenders, goalkeepers? It’s only in midfield that there’s a wide range of choices.
Making a quick analysis, I had 40, 44 players for each position. And it was more because of that that if you counted on having just 12 in midfield, you’d arrange 16. In fact there is indeed a lot of talent emerging in the midfield. I understand the question – up until recently there was also a shortage of full-backs, and now there are more again. In central defence, too, some players are appearing, but the question is whether they play or not [for their clubs]. If they don’t play, it’s very difficult to count on them for the Seleção.
Between the initial phase of the Euros and the second phase there were a lot of changes in the starting 11. What happened? Cédric, Fonte and Renato came in …
Because I understood and saw that three games in a row for Ricardo Carvalho, after such a tiring season, left his batteries a bit flat. It was important to refresh the team. As I saw it, in the game against Croatia, it was important to have Adrien on the field. The players knew that they could be called upon at any time. And there was a very positive thing for me, and that’s that they were always saying to me “I’m here”. They never asked me “Oh, boss, why aren’t I playing?” I never saw players pissed off in training. Sometimes it’s enough for the coach to give a talk, look at the players’ faces and understand that they’re listening to everything you say. This tells us that if we have to play such and such a player, he’ll deliver.
There are those who argue that if Bernardo Silva hadn’t been injured, Renato Sanches would have stayed in Lisbon.
In the last week, before we named the final 23, there was a short-list of 30. On it were André Silva, Renato Sanches, Bernardo Silva and Gelson, for example. Afterwards, I was to decide who would be the 23, according to the needs of the team. I was weighing up, for example, if I’d take four central defenders or just three. It’s very difficult to say, after the fact, that if Bernardo hadn’t got injured, Renato Sanches wouldn’t have gone. Why not someone else? Why him? For a long time the boy from Benfica, Gonçalo Guedes was on the list. He only came off it when he stopped competing [being picked for his club]. And so was Gonçalo Paciência. You could also say Fábio Coentrão. If he hadn’t got injured, would someone have dropped off the list? And would it have been Eliseu or Raphaël Guerreiro?
They say that in the Euros, Portugal sent their opponents to sleep. Would you say that opponents came out afraid of Portugal.
I think so!
It was like that with Croatia, with Wales …
And with France!
Why did that happen? What was the secret?
In the first phase, they all came out very wary of Portugal. We had a different weight, a different history … and they even had respect for Austria, only that ended later. Austria themselves were coming off eight wins and a draw, and they started against Portugal clearly defending, and they did something unthinkable: they took Alaba off. Portugal were criticised a lot because here was a game in which for ten minutes I decided that we really needed to bolt the doors, that what I needed to do was qualify and the rest didn’t matter one bit. They took Alaba off, a sign of great respect for Portugal. If you saw Iceland and Austria’s celebrations because they drew with Portugal, as if they’d won the Euros, then you understood that, and it was to our merit. After the qualifying phase, everyone realised that it would be very difficult to beat Portugal, and if they ran risks they’d lose. But Portugal never wanted to put anyone asleep; what Portugal did was not to go crazy, not to say that I’m going to win against these guys because I’m a lot better than them. They were the ones who wanted to put the others to sleep, and we deadened them sometimes.
In the Final, when Cristiano got injured, there wasn’t anyone who didn’t think we were done for …
Except me. Me and my players. When you lose a player like Cristiano you have to think, but I always believed. At half-time I said that to the players. “My friends, that was a loss for us, but forget it – Cristiano isn’t here.” And we adapted our strategy. Cristiano himself was very important because we were coming out for the second half and he was telling his teammates: “We’re going to do it! We’re going to do it!”
You never stopped believing?
What must have changed in the players’ heads when they lost the first qualifying game to Albania?
I never hid anything – I was always straight with them. On the first day I drew a set of scales on the board, and on one side I put the Portuguese team, on the other the opposition. And they could have been Malta or Germany, Gibraltar or England. On our side I put what all national teams can have: organisation, attitude, concentration, passion. What makes the difference are other things: having talent and quality. But first we have to get the first things right: organisation, attitude, concentration, fight, passion.
But what was the scales analogy about?
If they were weighed in our opponents’ favour we would have a problem, because talent wouldn’t be enough to beat them. But if the dishes were balanced in terms of those first items, our talent and quality could resolve games. I never told them we were the best in the world because I know that we’re not the best in the world. We couldn’t and can’t be presumptuous and think that we’re always going to win.
These Euros were a lesson for us – we saw football in one way and now have to look at it differently. Will Portuguese football have to be seen differently from now on?
It will, I’m sure. Not because Portuguese football wasn’t respected – we saw that in the group stage – but now they look at Portugal as being a candidate [for titles]. With me, Portugal are always going to play to win, not to put on a show. If a show is possible, then we’ll have a show, but don’t ask me to swap winning with putting on a show, because I’m not able to.
Where do you want to be on 15 July 2018? [the day of the World Cup Final]
Where do you think I want to be? [laughs]
Is there going to be that phrase …
I don’t know. Programmed things don’t work. Being European Champions gives us the status of defending the title at the next Euros, but we can’t hang on to that, and here, among players, coaches and staff, I’m not going to allow that to take us into the past, in the sense that now we’re better than everybody, we’re going to beat everybody and we’re the ones that are good. We’re good, but our opponents – whether they’re Switzerland, Germany or the Faroe Islands, are also good, they’re all good. We want to be better than them and that’s something else.
Was the experience you gained with the Greek national team important?
It was fundamental. When I arrived there, I thought it was a club. I prepared all the work of the Greek team for the first week as if I were in a club. And at the end of the week I saw that I didn’t understand any of it. Those four years with the Greek national team were fundamental for me. In a national team, there’s a multitude of things that don’t exist in clubs, and what I experienced in Greece was fundamental for me when I agreed to be the Portugal coach.
The Confederations Cup is going to come in the middle of qualification for the 2018 World Cup. What’s it going to be like?
Let’s see. We have a game against Latvia in the World Cup group phase and at the time we’ll decide the strategy, with a premise that is fundamental for me. If you ask the Greeks what the word is that they know from my players, they’ll say there are three. Two I’m not going to repeat here, but one I can: win! That’s the word my players know is the key. Always. I never play to draw, never!
Regardless of Portugal’s quality of play, there was a criticism made by those outside the squad and which is maybe right: if Raphaël Guerreiro takes free kicks so well, why is it always Cristiano Ronaldo taking them?
Strategically, we always put Raphaël Guerreiro in a position to take them. We work dead balls to exhaustion and it’s normal that there’s a player who tends to take advantage of free kicks, and that was Cristiano Ronaldo. But there was never anything to say that Raphaël couldn’t take them and there weren’t that many free kicks in our favour anyway.
At the level of the competition, what was the biggest surprise at the Euros?
I always said that the new format would bring a lot of surprises. It’s completely new. I always said that the thing about third-placed teams qualifying would cause surprises, because from the outset there were lots of teams that didn’t expect to qualify, and they saw a window open to progress. Which is what happened in qualifying – that’s why Albania went and Denmark didn’t. And no one was expecting those surprises.
A few days ago, António Simões [from Portugal’s 1966 World Cup campaign] criticised Cristiano Ronaldo’s behaviour in the game against France [his antics in the technical area in the second half].
I’m a great friend of António’s but I don’t agree at all with what he said. What happened with Cristiano is what happens with any human being. He’s someone who’s captain of the team, who’s an example, a source of admiration and inspiration for his team-mates, and he demonstrates what it is to be Portuguese, and a team-mate … That wasn’t the best player in the world, it was Cristiano Ronaldo and the real example – it’s not only when he cries because he doesn’t win. He was a great captain. They say he pushed me … we were in the last minutes of the game and the only thing he said to me was “Boss, we’ve won, we’ve won!” It was like me. One day I was commentating on a Germany v Portugal game, we were losing 3-2 and all I did was shout ‘Shoot, shoot, pass!’ I forgot completely that I was a commentator.
Do you believe that Cristiano will get the Golden ball?
I do, and I certainly hope so.