WARSAW (AP)Fernando Santos is going from coaching Cristiano Ronaldo to leading another soccer great, Robert Lewandowski.
A month after parting company with his native Portugal, Santos was presented in Warsaw on Tuesday as the coach of Poland’s national team, covering the European Championship in 2024 and the World Cup in 2026.
The 68-year-old Santos became Poland’s third foreign-born coach – after Leo Beenhakker and Paulo Sousa – and arrives with experience of leading high-profile players such as Ronaldo, who Santos even benched last month during the knockout stage of the World Cup.
Now Santos will be coaching a team captained by Lewandowski, the Barcelona striker who, at 34, is approaching the end of his career and might only have the European Championship in 2024 and possibly the 2026 World Cup left to play at international level.
”We want to be in the group stage of the Euros and then we want to keep winning,” said Santos, who stated his belief that Poland has the potential to compete with every team in the world.
”Starting today, I am a Pole, I am one of you,” Santos said in his first comments as coach, having greeting the media conference in Polish.
Santos’ assistants will include Poles gaining experience for the future. Cezary Kulesza, head of Poland’s soccer federation, said this was one of the conditions for hiring Santos.
Santos is tasked with improving Poland’s underwhelming record at recent major tournaments.
Since 1986, the national team has only advanced from the group stage at one World Cup (2022) and one European Championship (2016).
Santos, renowned for being a pragmatic, defensive-minded coach, has good pedigree at international level. In eight years with Portugal, he led the team to the Euro 2016 title – the country’s first international trophy – and the inaugural Nations League title in 2019. He also coached Greece at Euro 2012, where it reached the quarterfinals, and the 2014 World Cup.
In reply to a question about Lewandowski’s future role, Santos said – without mentioning the striker by name – that any individual talents should have the chance to shine on the field but that they are also part of the team.
Kulesza said his criteria in choosing the new coach were experience in running a national team, past successes, charisma and experience working with stars.
”We can afford to have the best coach available now,” Kulesza said.
Poland’s Prime Minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, said he believes that ”our national team and all the fans will go though many wonderful moments with the new coach.”
Poland didn’t extend the contract of Santos’ predecessor, Czeslaw Michniewicz, after reaching the knockout stage of a World Cup for the first time in 36 years. Michniewicz’s contract ended Dec. 31.
Former Portugal and South Korea coach Paulo Bento and Liverpool great Steven Gerrard, recently fired by Aston Villa in the Premier League, were linked with the job after the Polish soccer federation said it would be hiring a foreign coach.
Santos’ greater experience might have made the difference. On Monday, when it became clear Santos would be hired, Polish Sports Minister Kamil Bortniczuk congratulated the soccer association on Twitter on its decision and called Santos a highly successful coach with ”experience in working with great stars” such as Ronaldo.
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