At World Cup, Portugal is a lot more than Cristiano Ronaldo

Oct 26, 2022, 2:38 PM | Updated: Oct 27, 2022, 3:11 am
Atletico Madrid's Joao Felix runs with the ball during a Spanish La Liga soccer match between Atlet...

Atletico Madrid's Joao Felix runs with the ball during a Spanish La Liga soccer match between Atletico Madrid and Levante at the Wanda Metropolitano stadium in Madrid, Spain, Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

(AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

              FILE- Portugal's Bernardo Silva controls the ball next to North Macedonia's Milan Ristovski, right, during the World Cup 2022 playoff soccer match between Portugal and North Macedonia, at the Dragao stadium in Porto, Portugal, Tuesday, March 29, 2022. (AP Photo/Luis Vieira, File)
            
              FILE - Portugal's Joao Cancelo, left, challenges for the ball with Czech Republic's Adam Hlozek during the UEFA Nations League soccer match between Portugal and the Czech Republic, at the Jose Alvalade Stadium in Lisbon, Thursday, June 9, 2022. (AP Photo/Armando Franca, File)
            
              FILE - Spain goalkeeper Unai Simon saves on an attempt to score by Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo during the UEFA Nations League soccer match between Portugal and Spain at the Municipal Stadium in Braga, Portugal, Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022. (AP Photo/Luis Vieira)
            
              FILE - Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo, right, challenges for the ball with Spain's Pau Torres during the UEFA Nations League soccer match between Portugal and Spain at the Municipal Stadium in Braga, Portugal, Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022. (AP Photo/Luis Vieira, File)
            
              FILE - Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo runs with the ball during the UEFA Nations League soccer match between the Czech Republic and Portugal at the Sinobo stadium in Prague, Czech Republic, Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek, File)
            
              Portugal's Pepe stands on the pitch before the UEFA Nations League soccer match between Spain and Portugal, at the Benito Villamarin Stadium, in Seville, Spain, Thursday, June 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Jose Breton)
            
              FILE - Portugal coach Fernando Santos during the UEFA Nations League soccer match between Portugal and Switzerland, at the Jose Alvalade Stadium in Lisbon, Portugal, Sunday, June 5, 2022. (AP Photo/Armando Franca, File)
            
              FILE - Czech Republic's Jan Kuchta, left, challenges for the ball with Portugal's Bernardo Silva during the UEFA Nations League soccer match between Portugal and the Czech Republic, at the Jose Alvalade Stadium in Lisbon, Thursday, June 9, 2022. (AP Photo/Armando Franca, File)
            
              FILE - Spain's Carlos Soler vies for the ball with Portugal's Pepe, right, during the UEFA Nations League soccer match between Spain and Portugal, at the Benito Villamarin Stadium, in Seville, Spain, Thursday, June 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Jose Breton, File)
            
              FILE - Portugal's Bruno Fernandes reacts after missing a scoring chance during the UEFA Nations League soccer match between Portugal and Spain at the Municipal Stadium in Braga, Portugal, Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022. (AP Photo/Luis Vieira, File)
            
              Atletico Madrid's Joao Felix runs with the ball during a Spanish La Liga soccer match between Atletico Madrid and Levante at the Wanda Metropolitano stadium in Madrid, Spain, Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

For the last two decades or so, Portugal arrived at every major tournament with all eyes on Cristiano Ronaldo.

The team’s hopes of doing well at World Cups and European Championships were mostly dependent on whether Ronaldo could successfully lead his team to victory.

He will still be Portugal’s biggest star in Qatar, but this time there will be lot more to Portugal than Ronaldo.

The 37-year-old forward has been showing signs of a letdown for the first time in his career, and will enter what could be his last World Cup without the status of indisputable starter.

Ronaldo has been playing fewer minutes at Manchester United, and even with Portugal he recently was relegated to the bench, something unimaginable not long ago.

“It was a tactical and technical decision,” Portugal coach Fernando Santos said when he left the all-time leading scorer in international soccer on the bench in a Nations League match against Spain in June.

Now Santos has a greater cast of players who can share the spotlight with Ronaldo. Portugal has a very good new generation of players that includes Bernardo Silva, Bruno Fernandes and João Félix.

PREMIER SUPPORT

Some of the Portuguese players who will be sharing the spotlight with Ronaldo have been thriving in the Premier League recently.

Silva is a regular starter in a Manchester City team that also includes Portugal defenders João Cancelo and Rúben Dias. Bruno Fernandes has been doing well as Ronaldo’s teammate at Man United, and Liverpool’s Diogo Jota will only miss the World Cup because of an injury.

FÉLIX’S DEBUT

While Ronaldo could be making his World Cup farewell, João Félix is set to make his debut.

It wasn’t long ago that Félix was being touted in Portugal as the next Ronaldo, drawing widespread comparisons with the star after a quick rise through the youth squads at Benfica.

Félix, who will be 23 at the World Cup, remains one of Portugal’s main hopes for the future, but the hype surrounding him has faded a bit since he signed with Atlético Madrid and struggled to immediately meet expectations.

He was off to a good start this season and appeared to be finally settling in with the club, but again gradually lost time on the field. He also hasn’t been a regular starter with Portugal recently, playing fewer minutes under Santos entering the World Cup.

VETERAN PEPE

Another veteran Portugal player who may be appearing in his last World Cup is Pepe, who is two years older than Ronaldo and is set to lead the defense at the tournament for a fourth consecutive time.

Known for his leadership and toughness, Pepe has been an indisputable starter for the national team at center back. He will enter the tournament just shy of 130 appearances with Portugal, which is third on the all time list.

He also played in four European Championships for his country, including when Portugal won the title in 2016.

The veteran defender may not be in his best shape entering the tournament in Qatar, though, after picking up a knee injury that was expected to sideline him ahead of the tournament.

RECENT SETBACKS

After finally breaking through with a major title at Euro 2016, Portugal also added the title of the inaugural edition of the Nations League at home in 2019. But it didn’t make it past the round of 16 at the 2018 World Cup and at Euro 2020.

There was concern about the team’s disappointing performances in recent important games, including when it failed at home against Serbia with an automatic World Cup spot on the line and against Spain in the final round of its group in this year’s Nations League.

The setbacks have led many to question Santos, and speculate whether this generation could have been doing better with someone else in charge.

“I’m not worried,” Santos said when asked about those doubting him. “I have a contract until 2024.”

___

AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

___

Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni

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At World Cup, Portugal is a lot more than Cristiano Ronaldo