ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Fans in his native Portugal called him the “Engineer” for his university education and careful planning.
In Greece, coach Fernando Santos has lived up to that reputation, transforming a team from one that struggled to live up to its astonishing victory in the 2004 European Championships to habitual qualifiers at major tournaments.
Since taking over in 2010, the 59-year-old has earned an impressive 24-13-5 record, with two of those losses in friendlies using tryouts in the lineup.
Santos spent his first 15 months on the job unbeaten, reaching Euro 2012. They eliminated co-host Poland and Russia to reach the knock-out stage, in the country’s first big achievement since 2004.
Following a short playing career, Santos returned to football as a manager 27 years ago, roughly splitting his time between Portugal and Greece with stints at Porto, Benfica, as well as AEK Athens, Panathinakos, 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 disappointing World Cup campaign in South Africa threatened the country with a swift return to the football wilderness.
He kept the controlled style of play mastered by his predecessor, the idiosyncratic German 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.
“Santos has been a great fit,” said Paris Ayiomamitis, a veteran football writer and chief editor at the weekly English-language newspaper Athens Views.
“He kept Greece at a steady level. Rehhagel gave them structure, and Santos complimented that. He bonded with the players. I think that was important. He’s like a Greek — the way he looks, he smokes, he’s more emotional. People like him.”
Fans loved Santos’ style as manager, and he loved them right back.
“I’ve never felt anything like it. The Greek people have embraced me,” Santos, who is typically low-key, said after playoff matches against Romania sealed World Cup qualification. Players threw him in the air, he cried, and spoke Greek publicly for the first time.
Santos comes from a country struggling also with financial crisis, and is mindful of football’s feelgood factor.
“We all wait for moments like this: moments of hope, and the sense that things will get better,” he said leaving Romania.
Santos’ consistency has kept Greece high in the World rankings. Reaching 8th place in October 2011 and briefly dropping as low as 16th in June 2013. That meant that he has spent four years mostly avoiding major opponents.
But Greece has shown difficult in handling speed, a problem that saw them overrun by high-scoring Bosnia in the World Cup qualifiers and lose a friendly 2-0 to South Korea in Athens in March.
Santos announced 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 isn’t wasn’t a difficult decision, but emotionally it was.”
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