There are many soccer players who one can immediately tell will eventually become coaches. Johan Cruyff is perhaps the most striking example, going from Netherlands maestro to Barcelona ideologue, but these players do not necessarily have to be as brilliant as the Dutch master. On the other hand, there are players who become coaches only after they mature, change, learn and practically go through a metamorphosis.
In Euro 2000 I was at the King Baudouin Stadium in Brussels attending the semifinal between World Champion France and Portugal, boasting a squad known as the "golden generation." An incredible drama took place in extra time, at 1-1, with both teams looking for the "golden goal" that would win the game: The referee awarded a penalty for France. Abel Xavier was at the center of the riot, Nuno Gomes did his bit and Paulo Bento lost his head completely. The 31-year-old defensive midfielder raged when Gomes was shown the red card, swore at the referee and even grabbed the ball away from the ref to avoid having the penalty taken. For these rash, immature acts he was slapped with a six-month ban.
If anyone had then told Bento, or any other spectator or Portuguese soccer fan, that a decade later he would be the man coaching the national team, it would be at the risk of being labeled a nut.
But that's exactly what happened in September 2000, after Carlos Queiroz's miserable run as coach. Bento, who ended his playing career at Sporting Lisbon, then served as youth team coach before being promoted to assistant coach and later head coach, was now called to take over the national team. The Portuguese press was far from enthusiastic, due to his fiery past and the simple fact that he only had experience of coaching one team for four years. The players, on the other hand, headed by Cristiano Ronaldo, supported Bento and gave him time to find his rhythm. This allowed Bento to work calmly at the start of his tenure, and is now reaping rewards.
Bento is no soccer philosopher as Queiroz was, nor a larger-than-life charismatic figure like his predecessor, Luiz Felipe Scolari, but he could boast being a decent soccer player for Benfica and Sporting Lisbon, with 35 international caps to boot. He is definitely what is known as a "players' coach."
"He has full awareness of every aspect of the locker room," says Portuguese journalist Jose Luis Periera, "including the position of a player who isn't a star but does his best to contribute, and that, in itself is very important."
True, there were locker room skirmishes in his time, notably, between Ricardo Carvalho and Jose Bosingwa, but these things always happen in the Portuguese national team under any coach, and still, Bento's era is relatively calm. More importantly, Ronaldo is blooming under Bento, and when the star shines, everything is rosy.
Despite it not always being evident in the results, Portugal is also playing more attacking, free-flowing soccer than under its former coaches. One could see that in the last Euro semifinal against the great Spain, with its defensive opening lineup and Vicente Del Bosque's cowardly substitutes, compared to Bento's. It didn't do any good, ultimately, but Portugal could do worse than being knocked out in the semifinal by the World and European champion.
While Scolari was the player's friend without lending an ear to their tactical wishes and capabilities, and Queiroz treated them all as no more than backward students, the current coach has a different approach. Bento, who grew up in a poor neighborhood, shares his ideas with the players and asks for their opinion, not only Ronaldo's. He respects the players and has gained their respect.
"Why shouldn't I ask their opinions and confer with them?" he said before the last Euro tournament. "Of course I'm the one who determines the formation, but I can definitely say that the main course is, for example, a steak, and ask them what they want on the side." Bento, by the way, worked as a boy in his parents' restaurant.
Since he was appointed Bento has had some success, including reaching the Euro semifinal and beating Spain 4-0 in a friendly – Spain's largest defeat in decades – but has also known some low moments, such as the defeat to Ecuador in a friendly last month, but in both cases he keeps his head.
"Israel has the same number of points we have and is our rival for second place in the group," he said last weekend. "Mathematically, we can still win the group, but that depends on Russia's results as well. Our object is to end up with more points than Israel, and therefore this game is so important. We shouldn't think of Israel's 4-0 defeat to Russia, because that didn't really reflect Israel's capability since it is a technical team playing at home and its players are fully aware of the game's importance."
Bento is far from being the first name that springs to mind when one thinks of Portuguese coaches, but this is a soccer student who has matured, learned and succeeded. He understands the game well and has no fear of trusting younger players – as he proved at Sporting Lisbon – or recalling the older heads when needed. He respects the team's stars and allows them freedom, while seeing the team as a whole. On Friday in Ramat Gan, Bento faces one of the most important challenges of his coaching career so far.