Known as the “Engineer” in his native Portugal for his university education and careful planning, Fernando Santos has lived up to that reputation in Greece since taking over as coach of the national soccer team.
Santos has transformed the team from one that struggled to live up to its astonishing victory at the 2004 European Championship to habitual qualifiers at major tournaments.
Since taking over in 2010, the 59-year-old Santos has earned an impressive 24-13-5 record, with two of those losses in friendlies using youngsters in the lineup.
Santos spent his first 15 months on the job unbeaten, easily qualifying for Euro 2012 and then advancing to the quarterfinals in the country’s first big achievement since 2004.
Following a short playing career, Santos returned to soccer as a coach 27 years ago, roughly splitting his time between Portugal and Greece with stints at FC Porto, Benfica, AEK Athens, Panathinaikos and PAOK.
Despite winning little silverware, he became regarded in Greece as a coach who could rescue troubled clubs — a skill in urgent demand at the national team four years ago when team squabbles and a rather disappointing World Cup campaign in South Africa threatened the country with a swift return to the soccer wilderness.
He kept the controlled style of play mastered by his predecessor, the idiosyncratic Otto Rehhagel, but threw out the rest of his rule book — fielding talented youngsters who struggled to get match time at their own clubs, and playing more aggressively, often with three strikers.
Fans loved it, and he loved them right back.
“I’ve never felt anything like it. The Greek people have embraced me,” the typically low-key Santos said after play-off matches against Romania sealed World Cup qualification.
Players threw him in the air, he cried, and spoke Greek publicly for the first time.
Santos has said he will step down after the World Cup, revealing that coaching had tired him and that he wanted to think about the remainder of his career.
“I have a few years left in coaching and I need to think about myself … After all these years, you get attached to the people around you,” he said. “So, professionally it wasn’t a difficult decision, but emotionally it was.”