“Ballon d’ or? A bunch of journalists and people voting for their friends ……………………… Let this be clear, I cannot take this Fifa award seriously anymore.” – This is not my quote, rather one from a legend who redefined football and himself won 3 Ballon d’ ors- yes, late Johan Cruyff. The Ballon d’ or and the FIFA Annual Awards is a separate entity again but the message remains the same. The main target of Cruyff’s comment was the FIFA Men’s Player of the Year where his Barcelona root too was a small factor behind the comment (Yes, you guessed it, it came after a Cristiano win) . Controversies, arguments and counter-arguments will always be there on quotes like this but when somebody of his stature makes himself this clear – we are bound to sit up and take notice. That debate is for some other day however, maybe. Fortunately for football fans, there is still some not-so-glamourous award in the FIFA Annual Gala and the Manager of the Year Award for Men’s Football is probably the best of the rest. Since its inception in 2010, there have been six different winners in six years. The best thing about this award is the unpredictability here, unlike the Player of the Year Award. And the 2016 version may just happen to be the most closely competed one ever. Before we go into the details, nothing is stopping us from taking a peek at the three-man shortlist.
Claudio Ranieri (Italy) – Leicester City
Fernando Santos (Portugal) – Portugal
Zinedine Zidane (France) – Real Madrid
Cristiano Ronaldo is almost certain to walk away with another Player of the Year trophy on the night of 9th January. And both Santos and Zidane has played a huge part in that almost-confirmed win. Neither of them, however, is as lucky as their student to be branded as “Runaway winner”. Nor is Ranieri. In fact, their achievements are so evenly matched that most of the football fans will probably be in favour of announcing all three of them as joint winners.
But yes, awards being awards have to be given and I won’t be surprised if just one percentage of vote separates the winner from the first runner up or so. So, let’s just try to look at the trio’s journey throughout the year and what brought them here. In this installment, we look exclusively at Fernando Santos’ 2016. Coming up later is a dedicated article on Ranieri as Part 3 of this series.
You can find the part 1 on Zidane here : FIFA World Coach of the Year for Men’s Football – Part 1 : ZINEDINE ZIDANE
‘If Portugal is going to do something good in the Euros, it will mostly mean that a one-man show has come off pretty well’ – it was the general vibe before the Euros. In the end, Portugal’s win was anything but a one-man show or rather the one-man show the pundits and fans thought of. Cristiano still stole the thunder to some extent with 3 goals and 3 equally, if not more important assists. But for the first time in quite a few years, it was the manager’s Portugal team that was playing, not Cristiano Ronaldo’s. Santos took over from Paulo Bento after a Surprise defeat against Albania in the first Euro qualifier. And that was it. Portugal won all the seven remaining Qualifiers. More amazingly, they managed to do it scoring only 11 goals in those 7 matches and conceded a ridiculously low 4 goals. Compare this to the situation of two years earlier when Portugal conceded 7 goals in 3 World Cup group stage games and you will know what had changed. If Sir Alex Ferguson had a managerial academy, there is a good chance that the advertisement tagline would have been – “Attack wins you games, Defence wins you titles.” And Fernando Santos would have been a co-founder or a distinguished Alumnus. His team’s whole Euro journey was based on a rock-solid defence line of Pepe, Jose Fonte, Raphael Guerreiro and Cedric and Rui Patricio in the form of his life in goal.
It was not just the defence though. In attack, Santos found the answer to a question that Queiroz and Bento struggled to deal with – the perfect position for Cristiano Ronaldo. Maybe the fact that Ronaldo is ageing made Santos’ job a bit easier but credit is to be given where it is due – he came up with the answer nevertheless. I am not even sure if a term like this exists in football but this is how it can be explained best – a wide, withdrawn Forward role for the Captain. Forward role to maximize his chances of direct impact to the scoresheet. Withdrawn because Cristiano does not feel comfortable playing as a number 9. Santos virtually played without a proper striker (Postiga, Almeida) throughout the tournament knowing that Ronaldo and Nani will do the job anyway and it will also give him an extra body in defence.
From a team solely dependent on Cristiano Ronaldo, he transformed Portugal into a team that his capable of exploiting their captain’s off-day as well. How? Simple, by reducing his overall contribution during the game after a hectic season and letting him flourish into the Impact Player role he is getting accustomed to in Madrid. And boy, did that work!
Also Read an article published before the Euros: Santos Masterplan can elevate CR7 and Portugal to Euro success
Another aspect which Santos absolutely nailed is team development. Fresh prospects like Joao Mario, Adrien, Andre Gomes, Renato Sanches got their chance. Injection of youth brought a much-needed mobility and sense of urgency in Portugal’s play. Sanches even scored one of the best goals of the tournament to save Portugal.
Santos did not hesitate to drop Ricardo Carvalho when he found it necessary which showed the confidence he had in himself. And he got duly rewarded with his intelligent substitutions too. It was thus fitting that the cup-winning goal was scored by a substitute.
Portugal may have scripted history by winning the first ever trophy for the nation but the quality of their play remained under some serious scanner throughout the tournament. Overall, the quality of the tournament was very poor from the purist point of view with so-called negative football being in control. And Portugal, who won just one of their seven games in regulation time was labelled “The worst Champions in the history of the Euro”. These allegations cannot be totally ignored though. Portugal progressed from a weak group as one of the 4 best third placed teams after Iceland’s dramatic win in their last group match. That helped them in the long run too, allowing them to face teams like Croatia, Poland, Wales etc instead of Belgium, England, Italy or Spain. Their win may not be a total fluke given the amount of dedication and teamwork showed in each of the games but there is no denying that they had the Champions’ luck. And in a tournament like this, it matters.
Santos, an Electronics and Telecommunication Engineer showed exceptional skill to pick all the broken pieces from the disgusting World Cup campaign and integrate them into a Euro-winning team. It was an act of art and he deserves every accolade that comes his way. After all, there is a reason Cristiano Ronaldo picked him ahead of Zidane for the award.