Knives Out For Portugal’s Coach After Stunning Failure To Directly Qualify For Qatar

Fernando Santos is adamant that his side will navigate the playoffs, but is he still the right choice to lead Ronaldo and company?

On Sunday in front of 65,000 faithful at Estádio da Luz in Lisbon, Portugal — needing only a draw to qualify for the World Cup — threw it all away in the 90th minute by allowing Aleksandar Mitrović to convert a back post header that sent Serbia to Qatar instead. Google was subsequently hammered by the question of “is Portugal out of the World Cup” as casuals raced to learn UEFA’s qualifying process and the fate of five-time Ballon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo.

No, Portugal is not out of the World Cup, but a dicey trip through a two-game, single-elimination playoff against other strong European nations must now be navigated, and that’s a horrendous reality for a golden generation that captured both Euro 2016 and the inaugural UEFA Nations League in 2019.

The lasting image of Sunday’s debacle was a livid Ronaldo, who appeared to chirp at manager Fernando Santos before slumping to the ground in tears. 

The video immediately went viral as Santos — who was in charge for both the Euro and Nations League triumphs — has come under extreme pressure in Portugal for his failure to get the most out of a loaded squad.

The manager, however, was quick to tell the press that Ronaldo wasn’t berating him for a tactical decision or even that match in particular — the 36-year-old was reminding everyone of his legitimate stoppage-time winner in Serbia back on March 27 that wasn’t given without VAR or goal-line technology in use. 

On Monday, Ronaldo delivered a message of Portuguese unity on his Instagram page. 

“Football has shown us time and time again that sometimes the most difficult paths are the ones that lead us to the most desired outcomes,” Ronaldo wrote. “Yesterday’s result was tough, but not tough enough to get us down. The goal of being in the 2022 World Cup is still very much alive and we know what we have to do to get there. No excuses. Portugal on its way to Qatar.”

To his credit, Santos was quick to take responsibility for his side’s failure. Despite the enormity of the occasion and the manager’s ability to select a forward line from Ronaldo, Bernardo Silva, Diogo Jota, André Silva, Bruno Fernandes, Gonçalo Guedes and João Félix, Serbia still out-possessed, out-passed and out-shot the home team.

“Serbia were better,” Santos admitted. “We tried. Our DNA is to play with our feet, but we had difficulties. It’s true that the team is lacking personality. Bernardo Silva wanted the ball, but he was the only one. We played with fear and a bit of anxiety. The responsibility is mine.”

Despite the praise of his manager, Bernardo was less enthused about his own performance — he was carrying an injury and replaced on 63 minutes — and issued a damning assessment of his team’s approach.

“It was a bad game for Portugal,” Bernardo said. “We managed to score the goal early but from then on we stopped playing. I cannot find a great explanation for this, words fail me. It was terrible, we have to do much better because we have a playoff in March and we will do our best to qualify. But at home, with 65,000 fans, we had to do much better.

"I apologize to the Portuguese who watched a game they shouldn’t have watched. The plan was to try to have the ball, we were completely dominated by Serbia. With the quality of our players this is hardly admissible.”

After bowing out in the Round of 16 stage at both the 2018 World Cup and Euro 2020, it’s clear that Portuguese media has seen enough. On Monday, headlines across Portugal included “Little Ambition For So Much Talent,” “World Shame,” and “Miserable” and likened the defeat to a “Cold Shower.”

Having won Euro 2016 with a pragmatism that yielded only one win during regular time, it’s clear Santos had failed to mold the team into an attacking side despite the wealth of options further forward. 

Ronaldo (6) and Jota (4) combined to scored 10 of Portugal’s 17 goals, while the third-leading scorer was Sporting defensive midfielder João Palhinha with two. The defense also isn’t getting any younger with Pepe (38), José Fonte (37) and Rui Patrício (33) all still playing big roles across the backline. 

Portugal now has more than four months to reset and reload, but will the Portuguese Football Federation decide to stick or twist with Paulo Fonseca, Sérgio Conceição, Rúben Amorim, André Villas-Boas and, yes, José Mourinho among the rumored replacements?

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