How Portugal prepared for Euro 2022 in just 10 weeks: ‘At the start everything was very rushed’
For much of a year, Francisco Neto has done his best to block Euro 2022 from his mind.
It wasn’t just that her Portuguese women’s team failed to qualify for the tournament. It was that they had come so close, both in the group stage – only a 93rd-minute goal in Finland prevented them from qualifying as top runners – and in an attritional play-off against Russia.
Neto felt his team had been quite good. His frustration was so acute that he decided he wasn’t even going to watch the tournament on television.
“There was too much emotion,” he says Athleticism. “Normally I would watch every game, but it would have been too painful, too difficult. The disappointment just didn’t leave my body. It was a time of mourning. And it went on for a long time.”
Neto continued his work. There were qualifications for the World Cup to prepare, young people to integrate into his team. There was nothing to do but zoom out and focus on the future. Euros would just have to come and go, painfully unrelated to his plans.
Then Russia invaded Ukraine.
In the days that followed, the dominoes began to crumble in the sports world. UEFA have announced their decision to withdraw the men’s Champions League final from Saint Petersburg. Then came a series of bans and disqualifications for Russian teams. It wasn’t long before the possibility of a late ticket to England started playing in Portuguese minds.
“We didn’t want to get ahead of ourselves, but something started to stir inside us,” Neto recalls. “One of my assistants called me after the Champions League decision and said, ‘Francisco, do you think we have a chance here?’ I told him to forget about it and stay calm. because it was not up to us. But in March and April, when other decisions started to be made…”
The players, too, were monitoring the situation closely. “We didn’t want to get too excited, in case it didn’t happen,” Portugal captain Dolores Silva said, pictured far right above. “But I haven’t booked a vacation for the summer. We have always had this hope.
Neto and Silva have made it clear that they have mixed feelings about benefiting, even indirectly, from events in Ukraine. Yet when UEFA confirmed that Portugal would go to the Euros instead of Russia, it was as if they had been handed a golden ticket.
“A joyful moment,” Silva calls it. Neto was equally ecstatic but knew he had his work cut out for him. The decision was made public on May 2. Portugal’s opener was scheduled for July 9. They had less than ten weeks to prepare.
“At the start, everything happened very quickly,” he says with a smile. “We had to accept that we couldn’t control everything. There were a lot of decisions that you would normally have 10 months to make.
It helped that Neto was proactive before the official announcement. He and his team had done some of the preparatory work quietly, looking at potential training bases in England and working out a budget.
“We are very lucky to work for a federation that sends a lot of teams to tournaments, whether in men’s football, youth football or futsal,” says Neto. “There is a real know-how there, and that helps enormously. Everyone knows what to do. It was easier to put everything together. »
Some aspects of Portugal’s preparations have not been affected at all by the shortened schedule. The players followed exactly the same fitness program as before Euro 2017, for example: a week of pure relaxation after the end of the domestic season, a week of guided work at home or on vacation, then a gradual build-up to the training camp before the tournament.
Other tasks, such as organizing short-term warm-up matches, proved trickier. Before they knew they would be playing at the Euros, Portugal had turned down a host of top teams and instead booked two dates with Greece – games in which Neto had planned to test a host of young players.
They decided to honor those commitments, but options for other games were limited. “They all involved travel and it wasn’t something I wanted,” Neto explains. “We could have gone to play against Italy or Northern Ireland, but the trips would have lost a lot of preparation time. I didn’t want that.
In the end, Australia agreed to play Estoril after a friendly match against Spain, but it was a bit of a hassle. “That was the hardest part of the preparations,” admits Neto.
Some flexibility was needed. Even when the team moved to their temporary base in Manchester, there were still a few loose ends. “Things you don’t even think about,” laughs Neto. “Official photographs, gear, promotional videos… you normally have all of that in place months in advance, but we didn’t have any of that. So things were definitely a bit more condensed going into training camp.
Now, as Portugal prepare for their opener against Switzerland on Saturday, another question arises. Will they be at a disadvantage against teams that have had one more year to formally prepare for the Euro?
“I don’t see it that way,” Neto says. “The only real difference is that we would normally have scouted all of our opponents in person… I would have liked to see more of the other teams in the group. But it also works the other way around: they haven’t seen us much either.
Silva is equally sober. “There is a surprise factor,” she says. “Other teams were preparing to face Russia, but now they are going to play against us. They will have to respect us. This gives us extra motivation.
They will probably need it. This is only Portugal’s second major tournament. They’ve come a long way since Neto took over in 2014, but they’re still only 30th in the FIFA rankings. They landed in a group with the Netherlands and Sweden; there have been more welcoming bear pits.
There is, however, an obvious pattern that they can draw inspiration from if they wish: that of the Danish men’s team, which failed to qualify for Euro 1992, then won after replacing Yugoslavia on the eve of the tournament. So have Portuguese players spent the past few weeks watching videos of Brian Laudrup, John Jensen and the rest?
“The players know the story,” says Neto. “We talked about it a bit. But they also know that the quality gap between this Danish team and the rest of the teams in this competition is not the same as the gap between us and the best teams in the Euros. The gap is bigger for us.
“But it sets an example in the sense that we will not make excuses. It’s not “poor little Portugal” — that’s not how we see ourselves. Just because we weren’t in that original draw doesn’t mean we can’t do something good.
“At the moment we are here among the top 16 teams in Europe, and we feel we have the quality to justify our place. We have to make the most of the opportunity given to us. We are not there just to make up numbers.
(Photo: Catherine Ivill – UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images)