Carlos Queiroz’s place in the pantheon of Portuguese football is already assured, having guided an exceptional crop of young talents – which would go on to be dubbed the Lusitanians’ geração de ouro (golden generation) – to victory at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in 1989 and 1991. And come this year’s FIFA World Cup™ in Brazil, he will become the first Portuguese to coach at two editions of the global showpiece.
At the Portugal helm at South Africa 2010, when A Equipa das Quinas’ hopes were ended in the Round of 16 by neighbours Spain, Queiroz’s challenge on Brazilian soil will be to take Iran to the World Cup knockout stages for the first time in their history. In conversation with FIFA.com, he looked back over photos of some of the most memorable moments of his coaching career, providing insights and recollections.
Victory at the U-20 World Cup in 1989 and 1991
FIFA.com: Before these tournaments began, did you realise just how gifted this generation of young Portuguese footballers was?
Carlos Queiroz: I had an idea that the situation was promising for us. By 1990 we already had an established pedigree in European youth football and we had proof that Portuguese players were blessed with great footballing ability. But that [golden] generation had everything in technical, tactical and physical terms, allied to mental strength and intelligence, all of which forged a team spirit and a national-squad mentality that endures even today. The work put in by the Portuguese FA during that period created a whole culture of what it meant to be a part of the Portuguese national squad. That identity has survived to this day at the heart of the senior team and at all other age levels too.
Working alongside Alex Ferguson at Manchester United
That was another chapter in my life. I’ve spent half my time working with clubs and the other half with national teams, but that was the most significant period of my career, for a number of reasons. First of all because, with all due respect to the rest, United are the best club in the world, with the best atmosphere and fantastic fans. It was a privilege to have the opportunity to work in English football and at Manchester United. I’ll forever be proud to have had the chance to play my part, bring my knowledge and commitment to the table and be at Alex Ferguson’s side. It’s a fantastic club and there are no words to describe Sir Alex. I learned so much and I know that, over six years of dedication to the club, I made some great friends – one of whom is Alex Ferguson.
Which is the most important lesson you learned from him?
I learned a lot of significant things. One of them was about the influence that leadership has at a certain level. The first lesson is the faith that the leader puts in the people he has chosen, whatever the situation. We all worked beneath an aura of complete trust. The second important lesson learned from the success of United is that nobody can be bigger than the club and everybody has an important role in working for the collective good of the club and its fans. The combination of these two formulas has had a huge hand in United’s success.
Portugal’s South Africa 2010 campaign
Where the senior side went, drama followed. Unfortunately for us, we ended up meeting Spain, the eventual world champions. They were at the peak of their powers and extremely high in confidence, while in that match we lacked a touch of individual inspiration and a dash of luck. We were at a bit of a low point as several injuries had limited our options, while we’d had a very tough clash with Brazil [in the teams’ final game of Group G]. We gave it everything we had against Spain and then came the [only] goal. It could have gone our way, but it went to Spain. Even though I feel that Spain’s triumph was fair and deserved, football is football and, with a bit more luck, it could have been us.
Were you satisfied with how A Equipa das Quinas performed?
This is what football draws its drama and excitement from. We felt convinced that we’d done our best and Portugal exited the tournament with its head held high, despite us not going as far as we’d hoped. When you come up against the likes of Spain, Brazil or Germany, somebody has to go home. It [the Round of 16 game against La Roja] could have been the Final. Vicente del Bosque told me later that it was then that his team genuinely started to believe they could be world champions. It could have gone the other way… It wasn’t a happy time for Portugal or me personally, but it hasn’t overshadowed how proud I feel at having coached the Portuguese national team.
Spain were just a tiny bit better than us and our individuals didn’t quite shine as brightly as theirs. That’s how you separate two very evenly-matched teams: you look to players like Cristiano [Ronaldo] and [Lionel] Messi to tip the balance. On that day, however, it was Xavi and [David] Villa who proved more decisive than our players, even though we gave it absolutely everything we had.
This moment was the one where Reza [Ghoochannejhad] scored [in a 1-0 away win] against Korea Republic, which took Iran to the top of the group and clinched qualification for the World Cup. It was a very difficult campaign: Asian Zone qualifying is very tough because there’s so much travelling, the temperature and humidity vary massively and decision-making is made very difficult. This goal by Reza was one of those moments: that was when we felt that qualification wasn’t going to slip away from us. The qualification campaign was a journey through hell for Iran, but now begins the journey through heaven. We’re going to go out there to enjoy it and do our utmost to make the Iranian fans both proud and happy.
You’ve always said that, in addition to reaching the World Cup, you wanted to play a part in unearthing new talents in the Iranian game. Have you achieved that too?
We couldn’t see ourselves playing at a World Cup without quality and international experience. Over the course of two years’ work it’s been possible to find Iranian players who were spread out all over Europe and bring them into the fold. When I first arrived we only had one foreign-based player but now we’ve got six or seven. Is that enough? I don’t think so but it’s better than when we started. Reza is an example of the standard of performer that we didn’t have back at the beginning.
So, what are your goals for Iran from this point on?
For two-and-a-half years we were burdened with the expectation and the responsibility that goes with trying to qualify for the World Cup, carrying the hopes of 78 million Iranians. When the players are shouldering the hopes and dreams of an entire nation, that’s an enormous weight to bear. The [national-team] shirt starts to weigh heavy. But that moment captures the dream becoming reality, a visual image showing we've actually made it.
A new phase begins now: we need to understand that we’re not going to Brazil to be whipping-boys or for a holiday. With pride, dignity and respect, we want to take on the best national teams in the world, be as competitive as we possibly can and achieve one main objective. Iran have never reached the second phase of a World Cup, so it’s our mission to do everything in our power to make it happen. We’re not among the favourites and I know that before the Final Draw there were 31 teams all wanting to get Iran in their group. But it’s our goal now to see if we can make someone wish they’d hadn’t.