Somewhat counterintuitively, it was a defeat in what would later become Paulo Bento’s home that convinced Cha Du-ri of the Portuguese’s proficiency for coaching.
Bento’s South Korea had lost the 2019 friendly to Brazil in Abu Dhabi, beaten 3-0 by goals at the Mohamed bin Zayed Stadium from Lucas Paqueta, Philippe Coutinho and Danilo.
However, despite the reverse, Cha realised then that Bento was a coach cut from a different cloth. Much to the surprise of the then-assistant and the South Korea technical staff, Bento chose not to sit back against the five-time world champions. He resisted the reckoning that South Korea should lie deep and hope to catch Brazil on the break.
Instead, Bento stuck to his guns. Having committed to implementing a proactive style since his appointment the previous year, Bento’s team took the game to Brazil. Even against a country of such superior talent, South Korea played as they would have against more familiar Asian opposition.
It’s a stubborn streak that in fact served Bento well. South Korea had appointed the former Sporting and Portugal manager in August 2018 following a disheartening World Cup in Russia, with the remit of bringing order to the team’s reckless and rear-guard approach at the global finals. He had been favoured, apparently, over starrier candidates, including Quique Sanchez Flores and Claudio Ranieri.
In Korea, Bento’s selection was met with much criticism. Yes, he had managed one of the preeminent clubs in Portugal, and then his homeland through a European Championship and the 2014 World Cup. But from there his career was blotched by two months in Brazil with Cruzeiro, a season-and-a-bit with Greek side Olympiacos, and eight months in China at Chongqing Dangdai Lifan.
In the face of considerable dissenting voices, the Korean Football Association (KFA) plumped for Bento. He had impressed during the interview process with his attention to detail, his studious nature, with what the KFA believed to be his standout football mind. They saw Bento as a coach they had never truly had before.
Actually, Cha said following last year’s World Cup in Qatar, when Bento led the country to the knockout stages for the first time in 12 years, that he had never met a coach as prepared as the former defensive midfielder.
While the performance in Qatar represented undoubtedly the highlight of Bento’s four-year reign, his tenure was far from smooth sailing. Detractors, it must be said from outside the national team set-up, felt forever there.
There was the disappointing 2019 Asian Cup in the UAE, where South Korea, one of the pre-tournament favourites, exited from the quarter-finals. The early stages of qualification for the 2022 World Cup were at times rocky, although they still went through as unbeaten group winners.
A humiliating 3-0 loss to Japan in Yokohama March 2021 marked the nadir. It hardly endeared Bento to the Korean public, who were embarrassed to be beaten so convincingly by their greatest rivals. Not for the first time, there were calls for Bento to go.
Apparently impervious to the pressure, outwardly at least, Bento shrugged it off simply as a friendly. He understood the sporting enmity, he said, but it was part of preparations for the World Cup.
Amid the public outcry for Bento to be dismissed, he responded, well, by not responding.
UAE open World Cup qualifying with win
That was just him; Bento was rarely willing to communicate openly in public. His press conferences seldom gave nuggets of insight to the point he was mechanical in front of the media. Team selection or in-game decisions were, almost exclusively, passed off purely as “tactical”.
Bento’s public persona was at times interpreted as him not caring, but it could be considered a weakness or a strength. In South Korea, where any minor statement could blow up in scandal, Bento’s personality didn’t allow for that. His closed guard didn’t leave room for controversy.
Thus, it made his closeness to his players all the more unexpected. It became obvious only when Bento departed last December, once a raft of his team paid tribute to the outgoing manager on social media.
In fact, immediately after the World Cup exit to Brazil, midfielder Hwang In-beoum provided a compelling argument for Bento’s bond with the players.
Standing in the mixed zone at Stadium 974 in Doha, Hwang was overcome with emotion when he offered, through floods of tears, that he owed everything to Bento. In response, the Korea media were shocked that Bento had this type of relationship with his charges.
Yet they seemed to have a deep respect for him. Many questioned for large periods Bento’s deployment of Son Heung-min, the country’s superstar and team captain, as he at first used the Tottenham Hotspur forward as a playmaker.
But when Bento realised that was not working, he moved Son further forward, playing to the strengths of one of the game’s best hybrid winger-strikers. All the while, Son maintained a strong connection with his manager.
A similar case could be made for Lee Kang-in. Out in the cold initially, and irrespective of vocal public demand, the Mallorca star with the burgeoning profile was eventually integrated into the first team. He went on to have an impressive World Cup. In July, Kang signed for Paris Saint-Germain.
Considering Bento’s four years in Korea, he is widely regarded now as one of the best coaches in the national team’s history. Remarkably, he ranks as their longest-serving.
Thanks principally to the campaign in Qatar, Bento is viewed as a pioneering tactician who moulded South Korea to play strategic, high-quality football. The difference between the team at the 2018 World Cup and the 2022 tournament was stark. It was only then that it crystalised Bento’s impact on the team, and how he was perceived in South Korea.
That acknowledgement has become more acute in the intervening period. Jurgen Klinsmann has succeeded Bento, who has since been appointed UAE manager, but unlike his predecessor, the German has refused to reside in Korea. In contrast, Bento and family lived there full-time.
What’s more, Bento requested he be based outside of Seoul because he wanted to be close to the national team’s training centre, even when the first team hadn’t gathered there. It permitted him to run the rule over youth-team players or communicate with other coaches within the national pyramid.
Bento stayed, along with his coaching staff and their families, in Ilsan, a small city far removed in lifestyle from the metropolis Seoul.
It conveyed Bento’s dedication to his duty, his commitment to the role. It portrayed how much he did, indeed, care.