At the age of 44, Paulo Bento is preparing to face one of the biggest challenges of his lengthy career in the game. Even during his playing days, when he represented Portugal at the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan™, the current Selecção das Quinas boss arguably did not have as much pressure on his shoulders as he does right now.
Having finished second in Group F of European Zone qualifying for Brazil 2014, the Lusitanians must fight it out with Sweden and star man Zlatan Ibrahimovic for a ticket to next year’s showpiece.
On the agenda for the exclusive interview were his side’s slip-ups in the regular qualifying phase, Portugal’s ‘favourites complex’ and his captain’s place in footballing legend: “[Cristiano] Ronaldo, just like Eusebio, doesn't need to win the World Cup to be considered the best.”
FIFA.com: What’s the prevailing feeling in the camp: are you looking forward to the European Zone play-offs or disappointed at not qualifying automatically for Brazil 2014?
Paulo Bento: I think that the two feelings are related, no? Our aim was to get to Brazil, in theory by qualifying directly. We didn’t do our jobs well enough to do that, but we’ve now got another chance to make it via the play-offs. That’s what we’re aiming to do.
Why do you think you fell short of qualifying directly?
A few key reasons. We needed to play better in some of our games, particularly the two matches against Israel and in the first half of our home game with Northern Ireland [which ended 1-1]. We didn’t hit the standards we were looking for and, even when we were playing well, we weren’t clinical enough – which is fundamental. I’d say that even though we didn’t play well for the full 90 minutes, we still had chances to win each of those three games and didn’t take them.
Would you agree to the theory that, over the years, Portugal have often struggled against supposedly weaker teams?
That has been the case at times. I wouldn’t say it’s always the case, but there’s truth to it. It’s not a recent thing, it’s happened to us throughout our [footballing] history: Portugal do sometimes struggle against teams that, in theory, we are strong favourites to beat. During this Brazil 2014 qualifying campaign we only lost one game, against Russia, who were direct rivals, but we were also unable to beat some of our weaker opponents. There are emotional factors involved, as well as technical and tactical ones. We didn’t have enough about us to win those games. The emotional side has weighed heavy over the years, and in other campaigns too. We’re still not quite able to overcome that problem of ours.
Does the fact the World Cup will be held in Brazil put extra pressure on Portugal? Are you under a greater obligation to qualify?
I can understand why there might be greater expectations because it’s in Brazil, although our objective would be exactly the same if it was being held somewhere else too. Our level of ambition wouldn’t change. But a fact’s a fact: outside the camp expectations are really high about us getting there, because it’s being played in Brazil and because they’re Portuguese speakers.
During your playing days you were known for putting the team first, which is a trait you’ve continued into your coaching career. Do you think this will be the prevailing ideology next year in Brazil?
[Individual] players might win you the odd game, but you only win major competitions as a team. In my view, there’s no other way to approach things. Of course I’ve got huge admiration for talented players, but it’s a coach’s responsibility to harness that talent for the collective good. You have to use the best players at your disposal, with a view to assembling a team. There will be times when an individual turns one game or another, but over the course of a World Cup, a European Cup or a domestic championship, the best teams will win.
Which teams would you back to challenge for the Trophy next year?
Teams’ form can change a lot between now and Brazil 2014. Let’s see what kind of shape the players are in by the time this huge competition comes around. That said, I feel the same as most of the people in football – that Spain, Germany, Brazil and Argentina are the leading contenders. They’ve got good players, they’re very strong collectively too and they’ve got pedigree… Spain may have only won the World Cup once but they’ve been extremely dominant in recent years. Argentina are two-time world champions, Germany have won it three times and Brazil five. Thanks to their individual quality, collective strength and footballing tradition, they’re all in with a great chance of adding to their tallies next year.
What do Portugal need in order to join that elite group?
Things can change once you’ve won a title for the first time, but I don’t know, maybe we’re short in other areas too. Portugal doesn’t have as big a pool of players to pick from as those four nations I just mentioned but, even so, results have been extremely positive in recent years. We were semi-finalists at EURO 2000 and at the 2006 World Cup, while we reached the final of EURO 2004. Given the size of our country and the number of players we can pick from, it’s very positive. There have been times when we came very close to glory. We need to try and stay on that track, unearth as many quality players as possible and try and compete the best we can with the big guns and teams with more depth than us.
On the subject of Cristiano Ronaldo, do you think he can be considered one of the world’s finest players without having won a trophy at national-team level?
Well, there’s already an example of that right here in Portugal isn’t there? Eusebio was never a world or European champion with Portugal either, but we’re still talking about two of the best players in world football history and two men who, for years to come, will be remembered as two of Portugal’s finest ever exponents of the game. Ronaldo is a tremendous player who will shape an era and when he hangs up his boots he’ll go down as one of the most brilliant footballers Portugal and this sport have seen. I don’t think that he needs to win a major [national team] competition to remain the best player in Portugal and one of the best in the world. Of course it’s something he’s keen to do, as we all are, but if that was the only criteria then we couldn’t consider Eusebio as one of our country’s best ever players. And for some people, who saw him play more than I did, he [Eusebio] was the very best.
What’s your view of Ronaldo and the captaincy? Does it put added pressure on him?
It doesn’t seem that way, he took it on board very naturally. He’s racked up an extremely significant amount of experience for both club and country and was still very young when he took on the role [of Portugal captain]. It’s true that he’s still young, but we’re now talking about a more mature, more experienced player. He didn’t take the role just because of his play and leadership skills, but also because he’s a player his team-mates really respect. We’re extremely pleased with everything he does as part of the national squad.
Finally, we’d like to ask if you’ve got a message for the Portuguese fans before the tie with Sweden?
The message is very simple. Nothing has changed regarding what we were aiming for, even before our EURO 2012 campaign. When we set out our long-term objectives, the main one was getting to Brazil, and it’s still in our hands. It won’t be the way we’d hoped, by finishing top of our group, but we’ve got the play-offs to make it happen. Against Sweden we’ll be tackling the game in a way that befits the situation: with belief, respect for our opponents and, more than anything, tremendous conviction that we can make it to Brazil 2014.