“A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way and shows the way” – John C Maxwell
For Portugal and Iran, these words would hit home as they are a clear reference to how their respective national coaches Fernando Santos and Carlos Queiroz have made a difference to the national teams. Santos’ Portugal clawed their way back to snatch a 3-3 draw against Spain in their tournament opener and Iran earned a smash and grab win against the odds Vs Morocco.
While both teams will not win any awards for aesthetic football, they certainly deserve top marks for sheer grit and a will of iron. Although the players execute these plans, the blueprint for this attitude in games has certainly stemmed from the discipline and dedication that the managers have inculcated into these teams.
For Santos, it has been a journey back to his homeland after overseeing a steady revamp of the Greek national team, one which was weighed down by ageing players and a hangover of Euro 2004. The Greeks were not known for their pleasing football, but they were a compact unit which was tough to break down and there was a spirit of belief, despite the odds in each match that they competed in.
Queiroz worked with Sir Alex Ferguson for many years at Manchester United
His time with the Greeks was characterized by the introduction of several young players into the fold, who were blended with the experience already prevalent in the ranks. What he left behind was a stable base for future Greece managers to build on.
When Santos took over the Portugal job from Paulo Bento, the national team was in a state of stagnation. They relied extremely heavily on Cristiano Ronaldo to deliver and also carried the burden of ageing players such as Hugo Almeida and Liedson. He set about changing the style of play and broke the shackles off Ronaldo so that their talisman could perform with freedom.
The integration of an exciting bunch of young players such as Cedric Soares, Raphael Guerrero, William Carvalho, Renato Sanches, Andre Silva and Andre Gomes saw the team make a shift towards a brighter future.
However, the most striking feature of Santos’ reign so far has been the willpower that has seeped into the ranks. At Euro 2016, in a tournament where they hardly impressed neutrals, the Portuguese inched their way to the final against France, where they lost their star man Ronaldo inside the first half. Normally, a team that has relied so heavily on a key player would disintegrate.
But, what transpired was a show of resilience and organization which led to Eder smashing home the sole goal to give his team the title of European champions. That willpower has not eroded over the years, as seen against Spain, who threatened to pass Portugal off the park when the score was 3-2, they toiled and ensured that Ronaldo had the platform to weave his magic.
While one Portuguese has lifted the national team’s willpower, another has overseen eons worth of progress in-charge of Iran. Asia, despite its football frenzy has rarely troubled the monopoly of Europe and South America at the World Cup.
Queiroz had a similar job as that of Santos when he took over the Iran job in 2011. The former Portugal national team coach and ex-Manchester United assistant has probably the best footballing education under the tutelage of Sir Alex Ferguson. The idea of blooding young players for the future was clearly something Queiroz believed in. Iran were a team that had suffered from a hangover from two of their talismen in Ali Karimi and Ali Daei.
Tasked with leading the team to the 2014 World Cup, Queiroz did just that and also refreshed the national team by introducing numerous players of the Iranian diaspora like Ashkan Dejagah and Omid Nazari. In the finals, they held off an extremely powerful Argentine attack at bay for 90 minutes before Lionel Messi delivered a moment of magic to decide the tie.
They exited after a 3-1 loss to Bosnia, but the work had been done. Iran had learnt to compete on the global stage. All this was achieved with the challenges that would have likely driven any other coach to quit. Lack of practice facilities, training camps and international friendlies due to sanctions were just some of the things that plagued the Iranians.
However, Queiroz stuck on and moulded his team to become a hard-working, compact and organized unit, one which is not afraid of going toe-to-toe with the heavyweights. The win against Morocco was probably not fair on their opponents, neutrals would say. However, given the journey that they have made to reach the World Cup and to earn their first tournament win since 1998, Iran would feel that the triumph completely justified.