“I get immense joy out of playing football, and of course, the most beautiful thing for a player is to play for his national team. Right now I feel like a child who’s arriving here for the first time.”
Those were the words uttered by the beaming Tiago Mendes, the 33-year-old La Liga champion, after ending a self-imposed four-year absence from the national team.
When Fernando Santos announced his first Portugal squad last Friday, Tiago’s inclusion was greeted with universal approval by the Portuguese public and press. And as the players congregated in Óbidos yesterday, the Atletico Madrid midfielder made no attempt to hide his delight at returning to the Seleção.
“It’s a good feeling coming back and being received by so many people who only want the best for me. I’m very thankful and very happy.”
Change of heart
Tiago decided to retire from international football shortly after the 2010 World Cup, and refused to go back on his decision despite several attempts to persuade him otherwise by former Portugal coach Paulo Bento. So what changed? The ex Benfica, Lyon and Chelsea player was happy to respond to this question.
“I spoke several times to Paulo Bento but I felt tired, and that I needed to spend more time with my family on breaks from club football. When I retired Portugal was in good shape, we had just beaten Spain 4-0, so I decided to leave the Seleção because I felt I wouldn’t be needed.
“But there is always that animal inside you. Looking back, I regret sending the fax [to the Federation saying I was no longer available]. I had the chance at the end of last season to return, but I didn’t want people to think I was coming back just to play in the World Cup. That wasn’t in my thoughts.”
With the Seleção turning over a new leaf, Tiago felt the time was right to make his return.
“Fernando Santos phoned me and said that for him age was not an issue, that he was counting on all the players available and as I feel in good shape I said I would love to return.
“This squad is very different. There are lots of young players. Perhaps that is why Fernando Santos recalled some of the older players, because you need a mix of youth and experience.
“I’m certain that like me Ricardo Carvalho is also overjoyed to return to the Seleção and reencounter so many friendly faces. We realise we are not going to have much future in the Seleção, but we want to make a big contribution in the present. We want to start by building a strong squad. Our goal is to quality for Euro 2016.”
The upbeat atmosphere of a new beginning was evident as the players arrived at the training camp yesterday, ahead of the friendly match against France on Saturday, then the Euro 2016 qualifier in Copenhagen, Denmark, the following Tuesday.
It was not all good news however. Real Madrid defender Fábio Coentrão was declared unfit and has had to drop out of the squad. The enforced absence of Portugal’s first choice left-back was not a surprise however, with Santos having selected back-ups for the position precisely because of doubts about Coentrão’s fitness.
As such, there will be no addition to the original squad selection.
by Tom Kundert