Cristiano Ronaldo leads angered Portugal players against the critical press gang
Resentment at media criticism helps inspire Bento's side to the brink of semi-final place
On Sunday night in Kharkiv, Portugal finally dazzled as their nation expects, with Cristiano Ronaldo to the fore in an impressive 2-1 win over the Netherlands. Still, the Portuguese media who made the 1,000 mile trip east from the team's headquarters here were a touch miffed to see the squad walk straight through the after-match mix zone without so much as a word.
"All of us have our own free will," said Chelsea's Raul Meireles by way of explanation, back at the squad's Polish base ahead of today's quarter-final against the Czech Republic in Warsaw. "If we have an understanding to not speak after the game, the Portuguese [people and media] have to respect that, just as we respect all the criticisms that have come up, good and bad."
The message was clear: with the upturn in form, power now rests with the players. They expressed that by failing to fulfil any more than the mandatory pitchside television interviews. It is a culmination of tension that has been simmering since before the team's departure from their pre-Euro camp in the Portuguese coastal town of Obidos and their disappointing friendly results last month.
In the first few days in Opalenica, the Portuguese Football Federation (FPF) vice-president Humberto Coelho and director of football, Joao Pinto, gave a press conference to respond to criticisms of the national set-up that had been voiced by veteran coach Manuel José (who called it a "circus") and former national coach Carlos Queiroz. Coelho defended the FPF, which has been under pressure since January over claims that Portugal's hotel bill in Poland would be the largest of any of the 16 finalists at over £24,000 a night – an estimate recently proven to be four times in excess of the actual figure, which Coelho said was paid by Uefa bonuses, not taxpayers.
The squad have used this as motivation. The coach Paulo Bento and the forward Nani have talked of "typical" Portuguese reactions, when discussing critics of Ronaldo and the squad in general in the last week.
It may be the oldest trick in the amateur psychologist's book, but it's working a treat. An "us against the world" atmosphere has enhanced the bond between the players and the coaching staff, something Meireles compared with his club's efforts in digging in amidst adversity to snare the ultimate club prize last season.
"Nobody regarded us as favourites [before the Euros]," he said, "just as nobody regarded Chelsea as favourites in the Champions League. It's our dream, just as it's the dream of all Portuguese people, even if it will be difficult."
Portugal's displays have begun to lessen scepticism back home. Even the performance in the opening defeat by Germany was encouraging. Many in the squad believe their widely lampooned efforts in failing to beat Macedonia and Turkey in friendlies were born of necessary fine-tuning.
As the Porto midfielder Joao Moutinho put it at the first press conference in Poland: "They were just preparation games. We improved from one to the other and it's all about being in the best possible condition for the first match."
Ronaldo's story is the team's in microcosm. Attention paid to his misses against Denmark masked a decent performance, certainly in the first half, and his goals against the Netherlands were the inevitable end of a rare bad run. He will fancy his chances against a fallible Czech defence, as he did when scoring in a 3-1 group-stage win in 2008.
If Ronaldo succeeds again, any continuation of the lockdown will seem entirely justified.
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