Santos keeps focus on preparing Portugal for ‘British’-style approach from Ireland

Portuguese manager in no mood to discuss star man Ronaldo’s transfer to Man United

No sign of you know who. Those pearly white teeth behind that immaculately bronzed body were only visible from snapshots of training at the Cidade do Futebol facility outside Lisbon, but no words ahead of this World Cup qualifier, not with the global media trained on his every masked move as two previously unthinkable milestones are about to happen.

Fernando Santos, the Portugal manager, was as uncooperative as he possibly could be when faced by a barrage of questions about Cristiano Ronaldo scoring a record 110th international goal before the second coming at Manchester United.

“It would be bad if we were focused on these aspects,” said Santos. “He is part of our national team, he is the captain and, like everyone, he is super-motivated.”

Santos went on to commit the cardinal sin of inferring that the Irish aren’t Irish at all. Nowadays “we know the characteristics and the pattern of these British teams” only elicits faux outrage. Gone are the days when such simple motivation can be plucked from the mouth of an opposing coach.


And anyway, by using "British" as a catch-all, Santos is referring to an English side that contends for major tournaments and Gareth Bale and Billy Gilmour and the ever growing number of Portuguese galacticos earning eye-popping salaries in the Premier League which, all of a sudden, after a 12-year hiatus, includes you know who.

Turns out the under-pressure Portuguese gaffer – having been bounced out of the 2018 World Cup and this summer’s Euros in the first knock-out round – was as complimentary as possible when it came to Ireland.

“Almost all their players are in the English league, they are not unknown,” he said without naming a single Irish player. “We analysed the games they played recently, where they tried to change the common thread.

“They played two very strong games against Hungary and Serbia. It is not a team that only plays defensively; the forwards come out on the counterattack.

“We know these characteristics and the pattern of these British teams. For them, the game never ends under any circumstances – they always give everything.”

The Portuguese for plucky is corajoso.

Outside the CR7 circus, the run into this game has been muted. Faro always operates at a slow pace but the sleepy old town prompted a local taxi man to note that the “summer tourism did not go back normal”.

(He also lacerated Santos’s overly defensive tactics for the entire Uber ride to a “beautiful stadium that has no team” because it was only “built for the Euros in 2004”.)

Only the most connected or devil may care travelling fans will attempt to enter Estádio Algarve. Uefa has decreed that all 7,865 spectators that might witness a historic night, should the great man deliver, must be Portuguese.

Santos behaved like he was hearing about all of this – the world record and Manchester United – for the first time.

“What will this bring to tomorrow’s game? Nothing.”

The taxi man is not alone in turning on the coach who delivered a European title in 2016. Portugal’s low-key approach meant they pulled a neat shimmy by preparing at their base near Lisbon, leaving the 280-kilometre journey south until the last possible moment.

There is still wall-to-wall football news across three Portuguese channels but less international content and more domestic news, including the latest on whistleblower Rui Pinto’s ‘Football Leaks’ levelling accusations of tax fraud and money laundering at FC Porto.

“It takes speed to dismantle [Ireland] and, if we do it well and are focused, and organised, I believe Portugal will win,” said Santos. “We have quality players, but we need to be a team.”

This is the nub of the criticism being directed at the 66-year-old, ever since Uruguay in 2018 and Belgium this summer played more like a team when dumping Portugal out of the last two major tournaments.

“Nowadays it is not easy to win against anyone,” Santos added, with a direct nod to March 27th when Portugal squandered a 2-0 lead to share the points with Serbia and Luxembourg beat Ireland 1-0 at the Aviva stadium. “We have to be at our best level and, if Ireland are also at their best level, we have the quality to turn the game around for our side.”

With that he was away to corral super-rich superstars to play for each other while also creating a historic night on the Algarve for you know who.

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent