When compared with those in orange it made for a striking contrast: Paulo
Bento’s team played their counter-attacking game with tactical discipline,
each player demonstrating a perfect understanding of what his role was in
the system. They ruthlessly exploited the weaknesses of their opponents and
if they had a top striker, could have run up a huge score.
are back in action today as strong favourites in their quarter-final
with the Czech
in Warsaw; if they repeat the kind of performance they gave
against the Dutch — in which the only flaw was the finishing — neither Spain
nor France will be relishing a semi-final meeting.
It has been a remarkable achievement from Bento. Portugal are supposed to be
in a fallow period after the retirement not only of the Golden Generation of
Luis Figo and Rui Costa but of the group, including Deco and Ricardo
Carvalho, that succeeded them. Certainly, their shaky performances in
qualifying behind Denmark suggested they would struggle to get out of the
toughest group at the tournament.
The opening defeat by a very good German side showed signs that they were not
going to go quietly. Only a late Manuel Neuer save from Silvestre Varela
prevented an equaliser.
Bento calmly rode the criticism his supposedly negative tactics received from
Figo and Costa back home. He had seen enough to encourage him. Sure enough,
Denmark were beaten 3-2 in Lviv (Varela making up for that miss with the
winner) and the Dutch pulled to pieces in Kharkiv.
How is it that Bento has got this Portuguese team playing such cohesive,
diligent football? The answer lies in a place called Alcochete, outside
Lisbon. It is the site of Sporting Lisbon’s academy and the birthplace of
this Portugal team’s football philosophy. Just as Spain have drawn on
Barcelona and Germany on Bayern Munich, the Portuguese have looked to
Sporting’s remarkable talent school.
In 2002, Bento was a holding midfielder in the Sporting team that won the
double under Laszlo Boloni. It was also the year the club opened the
Academia Sporting for developing young players. It is a state-of-the-art
facility with seven pitches and an on-site hotel for the players.
Sporting try to get players young, whether from the slums of Lisbon or by
casting their scouting net wide, as they did in finding Cristiano Ronaldo on
Madeira and Simao Sabrosa in the north of the country.
When found early enough, players are able to adapt to Sporting’s
extraordinarily high technical standards. Off the pitch a team of tutors and
child psychologists work on their educational development. The attention to
detail is incredible: Ronaldo’s bone density was measured to see how tall he
would get, and his training schedule was adjusted so as not to put too much
strain on him during growth spurts.
When Bento retired from playing in 2004, he took over the youth team. He had
played alongside graduates like Ricardo Quaresma, Custodio, Beto, Hugo Viana
and Ronaldo and imbibed the Sporting way. He selected all five of those
former team-mates in his squad for this tournament.
It was working with the next generation that Bento made his name as a coach.
He won the youth title in 2005 and was promoted to first-team duties the
following season. It was thought to be a short-term appointment but so
successful was he that by the time he resigned in 2009 he was the
second-longest serving coach in the club’s history.
The team was built around the players he had nurtured in the youth team. Rui
Patricio was promoted as goalkeeper, Joao Moutinho came in as playmaker,
Miguel Veloso as holding midfielder, and Nani was brought through to replace
Ronaldo on the wing. With this group Bento oversaw four consecutive
second-place finishes, two Portuguese Cup victories and Sporting’s first
progress beyond the group stages of the Champions League.
Those Sporting players make up the core of the Portugal squad.
Out of the 23, Bento picked 10 graduates to take with him to Poland and
Ukraine (Varela also came through the Sporting system) and the Sporting way,
albeit with a Bento twist, has been the reason behind their success.
Five of the starting XI are Sporting graduates while Joao Pereira, the right
back, and Helder Postiga, the striker, have also played for the club.
The team play 4-3-3, with clearly defined roles for the midfield triangle. The
No 4 — Veloso — plays more horizontally, covering when team-mates get
forward and serving as the fulcrum of play. The No 8 — Raul Meireles — plays
more vertically, trying to get from box to box. The No 10 — Moutinho — has
the freedom to make the play, to roam between the lines and unpick the
defence with his passes.
The Bento twist is to play with a bit more emphasis on defensive solidity than
most Portuguese are comfortable with. His Sporting teams were sometimes
criticised for being functional so it was no surprise that he faced the same
thing after the German defeat.
Yet Bento is clearly playing to the strengths of his players. He is not being
negative but simply seeing how much more dangerous Ronaldo and Nani are when
attacking the broken lines of the opposition on the counter. If the Czechs
get sucked too far up the pitch it will be very hard to resist Portugal’s
At 43 Bento is a young coach, ceding two decades to many of his rivals, but in
selecting players who he has played with or coached since they were
teenagers he has forged a team with a strong identity. The question now is
how much further he can lead them into this tournament. The Czechs face an
unenviable task this evening.