Every captain needs their right-hand man. Every general needs a lieutenant. Every leader needs a deputy by their side. In football, it is no different. And when you find a good one, you keep them around – something Portugal coach Fernando Santos has done for much of his career.
Nominated for The Best FIFA Men’s Coach, the UEFA EURO 2016-winning tactician has ensured one Jorge Rosario has not been far away, ever since the early trappings of his time on the sidelines a quarter of a century ago.
Perhaps a new name to many, he has acted as assistant coach for much of that time, while being a last-minute addition to Portugal’s European Championship staff – working as a scout, and has been an integral part of Santos’s story. In a rare interview, he gave FIFA.com an insight into the pair’s friendship and how Santos has become one of the world’s top coaches, as well as a national hero.
Having crossed paths on the pitches of Portugal in the 1980s, a young Santos, during his first role in the dugout, invited the then veteran midfielder to join him at Estoril in Portugal’s second tier. “It was a very young team,” Rosario reflected. “I was constantly the most experienced on the field and I tried to be the coach's voice on there.
“It was an amazing first season, we ended up being promoted at the last minute. It was a very young side full of talent and we were very proud of what we had achieved.”
That 1990/91 campaign saw Santos reach the top flight for the first time, and he has not managed outside of a top division ever since. Rosario moved on to Alverca after two further seasons, but the pair were not separated for long – with more success to follow. “He told me ‘when you play your last game, you are coming with me to Estrela da Amadora [Editor’s note: Santos's next side] as my assistant’,” Rosario said. “I have been with him, in different roles, in every title he has won since then.”
The first major one of those came at Porto, clinching the ‘Penta’ – the club’s fifth successive title, in Santos’s first job in charge of a big club. The differences between the man, in Rosario’s eyes, who lifted that title in 1999 and this year in the Stade de France are few, but feels the sport has changed around him. “He's basically the same down to earth guy, but the context is very different. We can't compare football nowadays and 25 years ago,” the former midfielder assessed, though insisting Santos’s coaching has improved in that time.
He also believes the national team boss’ open mind and a desire to improve himself have kept him growing in the game, though does admit “he gets a bit sour when he loses”. “He is a natural born leader,” Rosario praised. “I could say, jokingly, that he is the general and we, the staff and players, are his lieutenants and soldiers. On the field, he never loses his nerve and, above all his other qualities, he is a good man.”
A Greek odyssey
These qualities were tested to the full when, after a successful three years at Porto, they left the comfortable surroundings of Portugal to take the reins at AEK Athens in Greece. While there were challenges, it was an adventure that brought them success, adulation and saw the pair’s bond as friends grow stronger.
“The hardest thing in Greece was adapting to the language; it’s tough to learn Greek,” Rosario recalled. “We grew closer because I would spend, especially in the first year, a lot of time with him and his wife. They were, as always, great to me.
“Greek people either love you or hate you, and in the case of Fernando Santos, he soon become a king there. He was really loved in Greece, independently of his current club. And when you are treated with love and respect, everything becomes easier.”
And Rosario keenly remembers one occasion where that regal status Santos was afforded manifested itself in spectacular style. “I love one story we had in Greece when we were in AEK. Fernando had some issues with the president of the club and said he would leave. After, we went home, staying there for two days because of heavy snow.
“While there, I went for an afternoon walk around the grounds. It was surrounded by high walls, but I noticed this guy in a wheelchair. I went and saw behind the gates that there were more than 3,000 fans chanting for Fernando. They were saying that the president could go, but Fernando must stay. I returned home and told him: ‘Fernando, we have a few problems outside, you better go and look…’. After that, we stayed at AEK.”
Following their time at AEK, the pair spent spells at Panathinaikos and PAOK, as well as Benfica and Sporting CP back in Portugal, before parting company as Santos took charge of the Greek national team – having been voted as Greece’s coach of the decade. He would lead them to an all-time best finish at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, reaching the last 16.
The duo reunited this summer after Rosario had been continuing as an assistant coach around Portugal’s Primeira Liga, and it is something that truly stands out for Rosario. “I will always be grateful to Fernando for giving me this chance,” he said on their triumph in France. “We are professionals, and we separate friendship and football, but being able to work along with him in EURO 2016 was the biggest joy of my career – and I have been around for quite some time!”
Eyes now look forward to the likes of the FIFA Confederations Cup Russia 2017 and the following year’s World Cup, with Rosario now in his familiar role of assistant coach with the national team. But Santos’s friend of over two decades has no doubt the Portugal boss should be commended for what he has achieved this year at The Best FIFA Football Awards™ on 9 January in Zurich.
“[His nomination] is most deserved,” Rosario insisted. “Winning the EURO against France in Paris was like something from a dream. We are a small country and we had to face the best. We, like David against Goliath, won and Fernando Santos should win that trophy too. No one was better than him in 2016.”