LISBON, May 19 — Portugal’s famously pragmatic coach Fernando Santos says beauty is in the eye of the beholder when it comes to football, and to be criticised is the fate of all geniuses — whether artists, composers or Cristiano Ronaldo.
Santos has faced consistent complaints that his teams are unattractive to watch, even since leading Portugal to the Euro 2016 title.
But the 62-year-old, who at one point referred to his side as the ugly ducking of the competition, told Reuters he struggled to even grasp the idea of attractive football.
“I don’t know what beautiful is,” he said. “I know pretty things exist — but what is pretty for me and what is pretty for someone else is different.”
The criticism puts Santos in good company.
Brazil coaches are repeatedly told that their team is not easy on the eye, and Massimiliano Allegri has been taken to task because his treble-chasing Italian side Juventus have ground out results.
Ex-England manager Sam Allardyce was often criticised for failing to play the “West Ham way” during four years at the London club, yet said after leaving that nobody was able to tell him what that meant.
Santos — one of the few coaches to have worked at all three of Portugal’s top clubs, Benfica, Porto and Sporting — said some people enjoyed watching teams that dominated possession and strung passes together, while others preferred to see devastating counter-attacks.
“I can say one thing; you can only win the European championship and the World Cup by playing well; the concept of what is pretty or not, is something else,” he said.
“...In some cases, a team which is realistic, pragmatic but which normally wins matches.. that is seen as good thing — in others it isn’t.”
Ronaldo not immune
Santos said shifting expectations had also played a role in the criticism faced by the greatest player he has coached.
“It’s not just in football...The best painters, the best composers... anyone who is obviously a genius, which is the case of Cristiano Ronaldo, attract this criticism,” he said.
“In the past they said he was too individualistic ...but last year, he was criticised because he wasn’t so individualistic and he was playing for the team.”
Santos first coached the four-times world player of the year in 2003 when Ronaldo began his career at Sporting — and that long association has allowed the coach to appreciate the player’s human side.
“You have someone who is always under the microscope, who is criticised by people who don’t know him.... obviously there are some moments, you see a less pleasant side,” Santos added.
“I can say this, and I know him well: he is utterly selfless, very compassionate, he helps a lot of people... so an excellent person in every way.”
Santos admitted he was concerned that a number of his players had suffered dips in form or injuries this season.
Defender Pepe, midfielders Renato Sanches, Andre Gomes, Joao Mario and Adrien Silva and forwards Eder and Nani are among players who have suffered either fitness or form problems.
“Portugal has group of players of very high quality but in numerical terms, we don’t have a large number,” he said.
“It’s important they are always in good form... but this is also the coach’s job otherwise it would be easy.”
Santos also acknowledged Portugal were facing an uphill battle in World Cup qualifying group B where they lie second, three points behind leaders Switzerland.
Only the winners are guaranteed a place in Russia next year while the runners-up must play a two-leg playoff.
“It’s not easy, we depend on ourselves, but we have to win all five games,” he said.
“Once we have got there... we will always go with the intention of looking to win, but also knowing that global opinion does not regard us as the favourites.” — Reuters