SOCHI, Russia (AP) — They’re the reigning champions of Europe with arguably the best player in the world.
And yet there seems to be little talk about Portugal and Cristiano Ronaldo heading into Friday’s much anticipated World Cup match against neighboring Spain in Group B.
In a way it’s understood. Spain dominated the headlines this week with the chaos surrounding its coaching situation, to the point a large number of questions on Thursday at Portugal’s news conference were based around their opponent’s decision to replace coach Julen Lopetegui with Fernando Hierro just days before the game. Secondary was the fact this is the first match between the Iberian neighbors since 2012.
“We’re focused, we’re united and I don’t think we’re concerned with anything else,” Portugal midfielder Joao Moutinho said. “We have to focus on the action of the team and what we can do to attain our goal in this World Cup. We’re not really looking at what is happening with other teams.”
Perhaps a bit more respect should be paid to Portugal based on its last major tournament. The team won the 2016 European Championship thanks to a magical run through the knockout stage led by Ronaldo.
Spain, Germany, Brazil and France are all talked about as potential winners of this tournament. Rarely is Portugal mentioned, yet the players seem to understand their place in the hierarchy of contenders.
“The favorites are the ones you have just listed,” Moutinho said. “Portugal is, I think, among the candidates to be able to take this cup home. It’s normal to have other favorites with all they’ve obtained, all they’ve achieved. Of course you have favorites. We are European champions, but that doesn’t give us the right to be favorites.”
Any team that has the talent of Ronaldo has to be considered a threat, even though the discussion about what the Real Madrid forward could do on this stage has been sidetracked with talk of what awaits in his club career. After winning his third straight Champions League title, Ronaldo hinted that perhaps his time at Real Madrid was at an end.
“He’s an extraordinary captain. He’s an extraordinary player,” Portugal coach Fernando Santos said. “He’s very positive and a decisive influence as the captain of the team, whether it be on the pitch or off the pitch or in practice. He’s an important figure.”
Portugal needs Ronaldo on Friday to overcome its nagging problem of getting off to good starts in major tournaments. It has been 10 years since Portugal won its opener at either the European Championship or World Cup — the team beat Turkey 2-0 to begin Euro 2008. At the past two World Cups, Portugal played to a 0-0 draw with Ivory Coast in 2010 and four years ago was routed 4-0 by Germany on its way to being ousted from the tournament in the group stage.
Even two years ago on its way to the European title, Portugal started with a 1-1 draw against Iceland and barely advanced to the knockout round.
Friday’s game will be only the second World Cup match between the neighbors. The previous was in 2010 when Spain eliminated Portugal 1-0 in the round of 16.
“Well that question has been asked often when we play other countries. What’s history is history. The present is now and the present is tomorrow,” Santos said. “We have a team of high quality. ... We’d like to put an end to that story of not being able to win that first game.”