x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

A thankless job for Bento

Mourinho was the man Portugal wanted to revive their fortunes, but Real Madrid wouldn't co-operate.

Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo is airborne as he kicks the ball during training for today’s  Euro2012 qualifier against Denmark.
Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo is airborne as he kicks the ball during training for today’s Euro2012 qualifier against Denmark.

Having eventually rid themselves of Carlos Queiroz, the head coach, they no longer wanted, Portugal embark on a familiar rescue mission. 

Now they are under the guidance of Paulo Bento, the new manager who knows his federation really desired someone other than him in charge for their Euro 2012 qualifying match against Denmark tonight, and for their trip to Iceland on Tuesday. It is not an ideal scenario for the young newcomer to what seems a cursed post. Nor has Bento, 41, time to ease himself in, he has no margin for error. The Portuguese have collected a single point from their two outings so far and already trail Norway, the Group H leaders, by five points.

Sluggish starts to qualifying tournaments are becoming a nasty habit for a squad who made heavy weather of reaching the 2010 World Cup under Queiroz. There, they lost to Spain in the first knockout round, by which time an attritional conflict was well under way between Queiroz and his employers. Queiroz was dismissed last month after a helter-skelter 4-4 draw against Cyprus in the first competitive outing post-South Africa and then a defeat in Norway.

Then Gilberto Madail, the head of the federation, came up with a plan: why not airlift the most famous and successful Portuguese coach in the world for two matches? Surely Jose Mourinho could put his talented but underachieving compatriots back on track. It was an intriguing idea, and because it involved Mourinho, was immediately through the media. Mourinho said he felt honoured, told the Portuguese he would do it, and dutifully told Real Madrid, who pay him a fortune to work exclusively for them, that, of course, it would be their call whether or not they released him. What happened next is unclear because of obfuscation on all parts.

Mourinho told Spanish reporters he thought Real would not agree to a 10-day sabbatical; but he told Portuguese reporters he could see no reason the club should not let him cross the border during an international break in which the majority of his club players were away with their national squads. Mourinho's dissimulation was understandable: he did not wish to be heard saying "No" to his country; nor did he wish to seem like a dissident to his club.

Real then reached a diplomatic solution by saying in public that they had received no request for this unusual "borrowing" of their coach from the Portuguese. That way Real could declare they had not been uncooperative to a country who are engaged in a joint bid with Spain to host the 2018 World Cup. Only then was Bento - who last season left Sporting, his only previous job as a head coach - appointed Queiroz's long-term successor.

So much for the politics. Not surprisingly, Mourinho seemed to enjoy being in such demand and has hogged the headlines again in the immediate build-up to tonight's meeting with Denmark in Porto. He wrote a rather flowery open letter to the nation on Tuesday, saying how much he was behind the team and that one day he hoped to coach them. He backed Bento, who by this time was understood to be uncomfortable with the spectre of Mourinho over the national team.

What the new man will be grateful for is the shape in which Mourinho has left two senior players, Real's central defender Pepe and Cristiano Ronaldo, the Portugal captain. Both missed the game against Norway with injury and though Pepe has been suffering a virus, he hopes to partner his club-mate Ricardo Carvalho in central defence. Ronaldo, who has scored just one competitive goal for his country in the last two years, struck two goals for Real at the weekend and has promised his new national coach: "I'm feeling better and better psychologically and physically."

The Mourinho-for-Portugal episode was closed, "in the past" Ronaldo added to reporters, and he felt delighted to be re-united with Bento, who had been a senior player at Sporting Lisbon when Ronaldo was a junior there. "I learned a lot from him then," Ronaldo said, and "his experience is a big plus for the national team. But there is no room for mistakes. Only if we win these two matches, can we breathe easier."


11.45pm, Aljazeera Sport + 5