PORTO (Reuters) - Pragmatic and down-to-earth as ever, Portugal coach Fernando Santos has overcome the loss of several key players to build a team that are maybe stronger than the Euro 2016 winners.
The 64-year-old, a former electrical engineer who stumbled into coaching by chance, is an unlikely hero and has no clear footballing philosophy other than winning is what counts — something which is difficult to argue with given his record.
In just under five years he has lost only two competitive internationals and has brought the small football-mad nation its first two major titles - Euro 2016 and the inaugural Nations League which they lifted by beating Netherlands 1-0 on Sunday.
It has not always been pretty — his first seven competitive matches all ended in one-goal wins — and Santos made no apologies for that after Sunday’s triumph.
“You can approach it how you like, but I’ve been in this for many years, only those who play well can win. It’s not beautiful or ugly, that’s something different,” he said.
“It’s like art: maybe I like a certain artist that others don’t. Everybody has their own preference for what they like, but there’s something that I go by which is that to win you have to play well.
“And Portugal, if they won these matches, it’s because they played well. Now if it’s beautiful or ugly, I don’t know.”
Portugal’s level of understanding and teamwork resembled a club rather than a national team, which is a great credit to Santos given how much the side has changed in three years.
Only five of Sunday’s starting lineup were at Euro 2016.
Some older players, such as Nani, Ricardo Quaresma and Ricardo Carvalho, have left but Santos has also discarded younger players whose careers have failed to blossom at club level such as Adrien Silva, Joao Mario and Renato Sanches.
Yet, unlike many other national teams who go into a long transitional or learning phase, Portugal have remained intensely competitive as Santos has moved the pieces.
He has also proved adept at dealing with talismanic striker Cristiano Ronaldo, providing him with a role that suits his 34 years rather than expecting him to run like a teenager.
With Euro 2020 coming up and new players appearing all the time, Santos said he would go “straight back to work.
“This is an ongoing project,” he added. “In reality, it’s a clear demonstration of where Portuguese football is in terms of youth development and the ability of its players.
“There isn’t the financial capacity to keep them here, so they have to go all over Europe, but I think that the future is safe.”
Writing by Brian Homewood; Editing by Ken Ferris