After guiding A Selecção das Quinas’ to the last four at UEFA EURO 2012, the former Sporting Lisbon supremo subsequently endured anxious times aplenty during qualifying for Brazil 2014, with Portugal only sealing their passage via a Cristiano Ronaldo-inspired play-off victory over Sweden.
Now, with their place secured and the big event drawing ever closer, Bento spoke to FIFA.com about harnessing Ronaldo's talents within a Portugal side in which teamwork remains central.
FIFA.com: What are you expecting to find, in terms of the level of passion and excitement, when you go to the World Cup in Brazil as Portugal coach?
Paulo Bento: Above all else, I’m expecting to be able to enjoy this World Cup, which is a great competition and one we really wanted to be involved in. After that, within the boundaries of the talent and quality we have, we intend to try and go as far as possible. First of all, that means getting through the group stage and into the Round of 16 and, once there, we need to battle to go as far as we possibly can.
Portugal were beaten to top spot in their qualifying group by Russia and thus had to qualify via the play-offs. What was your assessment of the campaign as a whole?
The fact we didn’t qualify directly [by winning the group] wasn’t just down to Russia. It was also down to the mistakes we made against other national teams, such as Israel or Northern Ireland, and which meant we had to go through the play-offs. Once there though, we hit really high standards and ended up sealing qualification. We certainly had an inconsistent campaign; if that wasn’t the case, we wouldn’t have had to contest a play-off. Even though we lost one of the games against Russia, we put in two good performances, but there were three other matches in which we didn’t play so well.
How did you approach the play-off matches versus Sweden, given how much was at stake?
We were both confident and convinced that we had more quality, both individually and as a team, than our opponents, but we knew they could cause us problems. The players already had experience of play-off situations and we had a huge amount of support from our fans, even though we are a nation that can veer from despair to elation and back again with ease. Even so, the Portuguese people really got behind us.
The tie was largely depicted in the media as a duel between Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Did that have any impact on you in coaching terms?
That’s out of the teams’ control. Both the players and myself as coach have to think about the collective, about how we want to play as a team. After that we can focus on getting the very best out of our individuals, which of course is where a player like Ronaldo comes in, as well as being aware of all the qualities a player like Ibrahimovic has. But the most important thing is always the team dynamic.
Yet Ronaldo ended up being truly decisive, scoring all four of Portugal’s goals in the tie.
Every coach out there and every fan, whatever their level of interest in the game, appreciates what Ronaldo can do. They all value his quality, his talent and his effectiveness. We Portuguese are enormously proud and tremendously pleased to have a player of that quality and who is that effective, whether it’s for his club or his country. Individual talent like his can help solve a lot of a team’s problems.
What are his biggest strengths, on and off the pitch?
His professionalism, above all else. He leads by example and that spreads to his team-mates and to the whole staff. He’s a guy who’s approachable and easy to talk to, a good team-mate who is extremely competitive. These good qualities spread to his colleagues, who can see he’s got what it takes to captain the national side.
How will Portugal go about tackling this World Cup?
My footballing philosophy is simply to try and play well and win games. Whichever team plays better has more chance of winning the match. My main objective as coach is to try and get the team as well-organised as possible in tactical terms, as well as finding a balance in personal and professional terms in order to build a group able to handle both good and bad times. That togetherness is vital when the going gets tough.
Do you think this will be a World Cup where talented individuals can shine or will well-drilled teams hold sway? And in that context, how will Portugal set out their stall?
Every team has a few talented individuals that can help come up with solutions in certain situations, but as part of a team dynamic. That was the case with us at EURO 2012: we played really well as a team and were very organised at all times. Everybody knows the individual talents we’ve got, but the team is always the most important: without it, even the biggest talents can’t shine. That’s what we’re looking for at the World Cup: a strong and united team first and then the talent can come to the fore.
Should that be the case, how far can Portugal go at Brazil 2014?
We’ll be aiming and trying to go as far as we possibly can. What we’ll strive for is getting to the Round of 16 and, from that point on, trying to knock out one opponent at a time. Other teams might have a different approach and perhaps, because of how they strong they are and the pedigree they have, it’s right for them but, for us at least, this is the best way to go. It’s what we did in 2012 and it’s what we’ll do in 2014.
There will be three Portuguese coaches at this World Cup, as Fernando Santos will be there with Greece and Carlos Queiroz with Iran. What does that say about the Portuguese school of coaching?
First and foremost, it shows just how good Portuguese coaches are. In this case, we’re going to be one of the countries with most coaches at this World Cup and, what’s more, we’ve got coaches at leading European clubs. It’s clear that Portuguese coaches have ability and are well-prepared.