Brassell: Carvalho's exit is bittersweet
Ricardo Carvalho's untimely departure from the national team will leave a noticeable gap in the defensive back-line. ( KARIM JAAFAR/AFP/Getty Images)
It ended with one party feeling “disrespected” and the other saying he’d been “deserted”. Unfortunately for Portugal, it is highly unlikely that this tale, despite following the well-worn path of miscommunication and break-up, will have its Hollywood ending with a tearful reunion in Lisbon’s Rossio Square. Ricardo Carvalho is finished as a Portugal player under Paulo Bento’s management and whatever the reasons, the national team is a poorer entity for it.
If Raul Meireles’ last-minute move to Chelsea should have been the country’s most dramatic story of Wednesday’s transfer deadline day, Portuguese football had already had its fill of shocks by that point after the Carvalho story blew up earlier in the afternoon. It emerged shortly after lunch that the Real Madrid defender had left the team’s training camp in Óbidos, some 50 miles north of Lisbon. Without a reason initially forthcoming, most presumed an injury or family emergency, but one half of this extraordinary dispute came to light a few hours later, when Carvalho released a statement dropping the bombshell that he had quit the international game.
“Never before have I felt as disrespected or my dignity so hurt,” it said. “The only option was to leave.” Carvalho’s gripe had been that he had been dropped from the XI to face Cyprus on Friday in a Euro 2012 qualifier without explanation despite, in his words, being in “great physical and mental form.” That Carvalho would not have started is pretty much the only common ground between him and the furious head coach Paulo Bento. “You can only have a disagreement if the people involved speak,” Bento responded in a press conference. “There wasn’t any conversation.”
It appears that an understandably-busy Bento had been unavailable to immediately talk through his reasoning with Carvalho, the centre-back took this as a snub and simply went without a word, in Fábio Coentrão’s car (one can only assume he had permission from his Bernabéu team-mate to borrow it). It seems certain that a “surprised” Bento will stick to his word that Carvalho will “never again” be selected while he is Portugal coach, with the bottom line being that Carvalho had “abandoned his team-mates and his country.”
Portuguese football is still reeling. A veteran of 75 international appearances, Carvalho appears to be the least likely of players to apparently throw a superstar tantrum. He has commanded great respect within the international set-up, just as he has at each of his clubs in the last decade; Porto, Chelsea and Real Madrid. The 33-year-old is elegant on the pitch and understated off it.
If the genesis of the split is hard to fully understand, the reasons why it is likely to be final are less so. Carvalho is not much of a communicator, ill-at-ease with the glitz and glamour of the modern game. Interviewing him is an unusual experience, with Carvalho softly-spoken and always full of shrugs and nervous grins. He is very uncomfortable speaking about himself.
If his seniority and outstanding quality on a playing level made him an obvious choice for Portugal captain some time ago, his personality made him far from it. Carvalho wore the armband in last year’s 4-4 draw with Cyprus in Guimarães, in the dying embers of Carlos Queiroz’s reign, and looked like a bemused rabbit in the headlights of the waiting media after the game. He muttered a few words, gratefully grabbed his waiting children and slunk off into the night.
Unfortunately, Bento can be rather circumspect too, albeit in a very different way. He too is a throwback from the HD, reverse-angle sheen of today’s game. Bento is gruff and austere, admirable is his innate decency but far from friendly, and has had his difficulties in the past, given his reluctance to polish modern players’ egos.
Portuguese daily O Jogo claimed that it wasn’t the first spat with a player that Bento has had to manage during his reign, with José Bosingwa alleged to have reacted angrily after being left out of the XI for the friendly with Argentina in February. Unimpressed, Bento banished the Chelsea defender to watch the game from the stands, though the official line was that Bosingwa was injured. He apparently apologized to the coach later. In turn, Bento can be forgiving. Having fallen out with Miguel Veloso in his spell in charge of Sporting – after the midfielder’s agent voiced his client’s displeasure at being made to play left-back – Bento later called him up to the Portugal squad.
Any insecurity felt by Carvalho is understandable. There is genuine competition for places in the central back position since Bento eschewed predecessor Queiroz’s taste for playing Carvalho’s Real Madrid colleague Pepe as a midfield anchor – Pepe will start the game in Cyprus alongside Bruno Alves of Zenit St Petersburg. Porto’s Rolando (like Alves, an erstwhile transfer target of Juventus) is pushing hard for a starting place too.
The whole unedifying saga is the last thing that Portugal needed before an arduous trip to Friday’s game, which involves a five-hour flight from Lisbon to Larnaca, followed by a bus to Nicosia, where the game will take place. Cyprus is much improved too, and Nikos Nioplias’ side is a tough nut to crack at home.
Yet, the main emotion at the moment is sadness for the marginalization, whether self-inflicted or not, of a player whose legacy should be one of huge achievement. “I didn’t intend to finish my (international) career in this way,” said Carvalho’s statement, “but I’m doing it conscious and convinced of having always honored my country.” Carvalho has always commanded admiration and respect for his performances and his conduct, but if a player is only as good as his last performance, he may be remembered, sadly, in rather less glowing terms.