Introducing a 3-part series evaluating Portugal's World Cup hopes

Fans of the Seleção, rejoice! It is a World Cup year. As Portugal looks forward to what promises to be a colossal finals tournament in Russia, PortuGOAL will be steadily ramping up coverage ahead of the big event. 

To kick things off, Seleção correspondent Nathan Motz has compiled his own unique assessment of Portugal's tournament credentials in a 3-part series.

Beginning next Tuesday, join Nathan as he looks to the past to get a better idea of which team characteristics are shared by World Cup champions, and how Portugal's own squad measures up. Is there legitimate reason for hope aside from the usual fan euphoria? Or is the hidden reality more bleak? 

In May 2006, I knew precisely nothing about football. In this regard, some would suggest not much has changed since then.

It is hard to believe nearly 12 years have passed since Figo, Deco, and a raw but outrageously skillful Cristiano Ronaldo spawned new legions of non-Portuguese supporters during their scintillating run to a 4th place finish in Germany. I was among that group.

There have been two additional World Cups since then, both of which ended in unambiguous disappointment. In hindsight, it is not so difficult to understand why South Africa 2010 and Brazil 2014 went poorly for the Seleção, but perhaps you might remember that these tournaments still generated the conventional feelings of optimism within the global Portuguese supporter community. A quality of hope that understandably lacked some conviction after the Golden Generation had long since faded, and counterbalanced to an extent by a subculture of negativity, but there was still a surge in belief that Portugal might be able to contrive some unexpected miracle and win.

I have been wondering of late whether the build-up to Russia 2018 is yet another episode of false and irrational confidence that maybe this time things will be different. Regardless, an emotional wave is noticeably building. There is real conviction regarding this group of players the likes of which I have not seen before in my relatively short time as a fan.

But one might suggest these hopeful sentiments are merely the expected by-products of Portugal’s emotional Euro 2016 victory, and as such carry no real merit. Euro 2012 arguably had similar effects ahead of the 2014 World Cup. Such was the rationale, “If Portugal only just fell short in Ukraine, why could they not do one better next time?”

Obviously, some other crucial indicators of Portugal’s potential in Brazil were not considered carefully enough.

Interestingly, even as Portugal fans are beginning to come into agreement that this crop of talent is in fact another Golden Generation, there still remains hesitancy to bestow upon them such a prestigious title. Remember the only previous group to be adorned with such a laurel ultimately fell short in the tournaments of the early 2000s.  

In football, there are no safe bets. Unlike other sports such as basketball, American football, or baseball, the odds of victory in any particular match, even between a sure favorite and a heavy underdog, are just slightly above 50% in favor of the superior team on paper. This remains true in spite of the fact that just eight nations have ever won the World Cup, and five of those have won it more than once. Only four additional countries have ever even finished runners-up.

Meanwhile the rest of the world seems oblivious to the fact Portugal are European Champions. So unconvincing was the body of work put forth last summer that some betting outlets have appraised Portugal’s odds of victory in Russia lower than England’s, a side defeated at Euro 2016 by tournament debutante Iceland in the first stage of the knockout rounds. Many of Portugal’s standout players have remained basically anonymous outside Portuguese football fandom. For example, Rui Patricio had a wonderful tournament by all accounts, even making the Ballon d’Or shortlist in 2016, but he remains at Sporting, arguably playing in a league his performances have outgrown.

That said, here is the real question…

Are Portugal fans justified to dream the forbidden dream, or is it more rational to adopt the skeptical consensus of world opinion?

In this series, I will almost certainly evaluate some of Portugal’s key players and their individual and collective fortune at the World Cup in a way that upsets many fans, but I hope you will not be so easily deterred by unpleasant feelings. I hope you will be drawn in by the unsparing honesty with which I attempt to lay bare our efforts to win this tournament, especially as it pertains to the quality of our players in key positions and how Portugal compare to past World Cup winners and the current dynamos of world football alike.

As a test of your willingness to press through emotional slights to find the elusive bedrock of truth, try this on for size: I am greatly concerned whenever I see fans dismiss the reality that some of our best players are struggling or even failing at their domestic clubs by saying “they will be well rested for the World Cup.” This statement, despite characterizing their situation in an emotionally palatable manner, lacks intellectual currency.

Would German fans speak this way whenever their first-choice players were benched or putting in subpar displays at club level? Hard to say, they almost never have the opportunity since their starting players are always first choice at club level.

If you feel the object of such lecturing, fear not, I am no less susceptible to romanticized but unproven thought. For quite some time I have spoken about Russia 2018 being Portugal’s “best opportunity to win a World Cup in my lifetime” without fully appreciating or understanding all of the implications of such a pronouncement.

If you are still willing to participate, these are exactly the sort of claims I would like to openly discuss. No more false hope, no more supporter bias. Only honest reflection, historical and contemporary validation, and a willingness to prepare ourselves in a justifiable way for whatever happens at the big show this summer.

Less than six months separate Portugal from their titanic Group B opener against Spain in Sochi. Are we ready? Pull up a seat and let us talk real football. Part one in the series comes out on Tuesday, 9 January!

by Nathan Motz

Comments (12)

  1. jon/usa

Another great read, Nathan!

The 2006 world cup in Germany was also my first taste of professional futebol. Growing up in a Portuguese-American family, I had played soccer as a kid, and I was familiar with the existence of Benfica -- my...

Another great read, Nathan!

The 2006 world cup in Germany was also my first taste of professional futebol. Growing up in a Portuguese-American family, I had played soccer as a kid, and I was familiar with the existence of Benfica -- my grandfather's favorite team -- but I had never watched a full match, and I would't have been able to recognize Luis Figo or even Eusebio if they were standing right in front of me.

That summer, however, I completely fell in love with the sport. I will never forget watching our opening group stage match against Angola. I distinctly remember celebrating with my grandfather after watching Figo skillfully dribble by an Angolan defender before calmly setting up Pauleta for a tidy finish. That sense of sheer ecstasy; that indescribable jolt of adrenaline you get when your team scores a goal was something I had never felt before -- I was immediately hooked. The breathtakingly beautiful football played by Deco, Figo, and Ronaldo was absolutely spellbinding (however Maniche was actually my personal favorite player during that particular tournament!). I remember Deco's screamer against Iran; I remember the Spanish-language commentator on Telemundo getting a kick out of saying "Sabrosa" every time Simao had the ball in our final group stage game vs Mexico; I'll never forget the battle of Nuremberg against the Dutch; and my favorite moment of the tournament -- Ricardo's heroics in the penalty shootout vs. England. The 1-0 defeat to France was an extremely difficult pill to swallow. It wasn't my first taste of defeat from a sports fan's point of view (I was also a big Red Sox fan at that time) but that loss was so much more painful than any sporting defeat that I had ever experienced.

Nevertheless, despite the heartbreaking defeat, that tournament changed everything. I was sure to go to my grandfather's house to watch every single Euro 2008 qualifier on RTP right by his side. We would subsequently go on to watch just about every single competitive Seleccao game together for the next ten years, memories that I will always carry in my heart.

That world cup truly had a transformative effect on me. I was only 13-years-old at the time. Prior to that tournament, I had absolutely no interest in learning Portuguese, and the thought of traveling to our ancestral island in the Azores never crossed my mind. Sure, if you asked me I was proud to be Portuguese, I'd say yes, but in all honesty, I was Portuguese by blood but not much else. When looking back, that world cup didn't just spark my interest in futebol; it was the first time I ever truly felt Portuguese. From that point on, I actually wanted to explore my Portuguese heritage: I watched Portuguese soccer as often as I could, I watched Portuguese television, listened to Portuguese music, and studied Portuguese history. I went to my mother's island for the first time in 2011, and I've been back three times since then. I can now proudly say that I speak Portuguese -- not perfectly, but I've come a long way since 2006 when my vocabulary was limited to "Ola" and "Obrigado".

I also inherited my grandfather's love of Benfica during that period, but I've always had a certain soft spot for the Seleccao -- so much so that I would oftentimes tell my grandfather that I would be more than happy to endure a Sporting-esque title drought in the Primeira Liga just to see Portugal win an international tournament.

My grandfather always used to tell me that he wanted to see Portugal win something before he died. After waiting 78 years, it finally happened. In 2016, ten years after France broke our hearts in Munich, we finally got our revenge.

This summer's world cup in Russia will be the first international tournament I will watch without my grandfather. He passed away a few months ago, just a week before his 79th birthday. Nevertheless, I still intend on going to my grandparents house to watch every single Portugal game. I will sit on my customary spot at the end of the sofa, right beside my grandfather's favorite chair, just as I did when the two of us watched the opening match against Angola 12 years ago. I know it will be difficult -- to tell the truth, I'm dreading it. But regardless of what happens, I know my grandfather will be sitting there by my side, watching his beloved Seleccao take on the world.

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  1. Tom Kundert    jon/usa

Jon, that's a beautiful post from start to finish. Thank you for sharing it with us. So happy you and your grandfather got to see the Seleção in their greatest hour side by side. Let's hope similar feelings are experienced by the Portuguese...

Jon, that's a beautiful post from start to finish. Thank you for sharing it with us. So happy you and your grandfather got to see the Seleção in their greatest hour side by side. Let's hope similar feelings are experienced by the Portuguese diaspora all over the world this summer!

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  1. Nathan    jon/usa

Jon, beautiful, so glad that watching the Seleção has had such an important role in your life. My grandfather also passed away in 2016 so I can relate just a bit to how you feel. I hope there is much to cheer about when you go to your...

Jon, beautiful, so glad that watching the Seleção has had such an important role in your life. My grandfather also passed away in 2016 so I can relate just a bit to how you feel. I hope there is much to cheer about when you go to your grandparents house to watch the World Cup this summer.

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  1. Val    jon/usa

Great post Jon! Thanks for sharing a very personal memory. Grande abraco.

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  1. Paulo

Brilliant piecd, Jon/usa
Euro 96 was my first major tournament with Portugal and it’s been a wonderful journey.
May your grandad rest in peace.

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  1. Nick J

I think quite a few people will be surprised by the squad depth and quality of Portugal this summer. Semi-finals would be a good bet.

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  1. joe

This team will have the greatest squad depth in our history with alot of players that should and could be in Russia but there is just so much in those positions...players like b.fernandes, j.moutinho, a. Gomes, a. Silva, n. Semedo, r....

This team will have the greatest squad depth in our history with alot of players that should and could be in Russia but there is just so much in those positions...players like b.fernandes, j.moutinho, a. Gomes, a. Silva, n. Semedo, r. Pereira...they could be or not depending on Santos....the only depth we lack for some reason is at CB amd when I say Depth, i mean at the quality level in comparison with the rest of the team and at an age of being in their prime.

As far as top level players on top of the league teams which the majority are on where competition for places is the highest in the world and I would say in the cases where they are not always regular starters is purely down to not there form but the other player just rising to levels like never before but hose players are playing well and on a positive will have legs for Russia. B. Silva is playing well when he starts and comes on, its just r. Sterling is having the season of his life and pep is gradually bringing bernando along. J. Mario plays very well and well when he starts and its actually weird he isnt automatic, spalletti prefers more cover and plays defensively in that mid. A. Silva is a victim of a poor season and poor coaching and just no balance in that team...how do lead europa league but not score a goal in seria A...cuz he never plays or gets a run of games..again lots of legs for russia...a. gomes chose wrong...his style, physique and type is more suited to teams that play counter attack futbol where is mid focal point....which is why he excelled at valencia but he has been playing better under valverde...lets see....all other players are starters for their teams ot a minimum get lots of runout.

Lets not also forget that there are a number of under21 players that give Santos a headache along with players I listed above...r. sanches, r. Neves, r. Dias would be the 3 that are pushing from that age group. There are a tonne of other really amazing youth players from u19-u21 that could form an ever better generation than this one as I have seen alot of youth league and portugal youth setup and the quality is staggering all over place...i mentioned before that the next euro and wc would be our greatet squads..mark my words.

This current crop could do a euro 2016 and for me anything less than a semi final would be disappointing becuase player for player we are a strong as anyone...France has the best depth but we arent far behing with teams like germany spain and brazil and belgium.

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  1. Jeff

WOW, I just read Jon's post and I'm not going to lie. I literally had tears streaming down my face and goosebumps. I think personally we all who come on this site all the time, I don't ever really post but I'm inspired to do such at this moment....

WOW, I just read Jon's post and I'm not going to lie. I literally had tears streaming down my face and goosebumps. I think personally we all who come on this site all the time, I don't ever really post but I'm inspired to do such at this moment. The passion for the Seleccao is real and exutes such excitement and anxiety unlike anything else for me. No matter what sport my favourite teams that I love, just don't give me the same mmmmmmfffffff seeing the Seleccao play.

My story goes back to being a little kid and every Sunday listening to my father play the RELATO. This is in the 80's mind you, so not many ways to watch Portuguese soccer on tv here in Toronto, Canada. Hearing the GGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAALLLLLLLLLLL would just fill me with such Joy. I didn't really know the language all that well yet, so I would wait for the end of the goal to hear if it was Sporting, Benfica, Porto lol. Back in those days all the games we're played roughly around the same time. And always ALWAYS on Sunday's. My first ever memory of the Seleccao was the qualifying for World Cup 1994 USA when we lost the last game of the group to Italy and we're knocked out. From that game on, I would listen to every game on the radio or watch every game, albeit friendly games and all till today. Even if i'm at work, i put on the radio I don't care lol I ain't missing a game.

Than the first true joyous moment was qualifying for Euro '96 with the fantastic Rui Costa hitting a Cracker against Ireland to have us qualify at home. I had my parents by me my first Seleccao Jersey (I have them all now) it was when Portugal we're sponsored by Olympic lol Looking back it was a pretty ugly jersey the green collar lol. Than Euro '96 the start of the Golden Generation of Portuguese Soccer (Vitor Baia, Jorge Costa, Fernando Couto, Rui Costa, Joao Pinto, Paulo Sousa, Luis Figo) Oh what a bloody good team and exciting to watch was that one. Young, skillful and exuberant. Having won all our group matches against Croatia, Turkey (everytime a player fell on their team me and my friends would say oh he just broke a wing) Don't judge I was a young teenager lol. And than losing in the quarterfinals against a great Czech Rep Team that Poborsky goal still haunts me . We we're so dominant though and it was through a lucky break that the Czech's scored, which would end up being re-played over and over again with the Seleccao for many major tournaments after.

Than qualifying for 1998 being robbed by a referee against Germany giving Rui Costa a red card while he was walking off the field with only 8 minutes left in the game with us winning 1-0. Than having Germany tie the game with a few minutes left and knocking us out of World Cup 1998. Never seen my father so Irate and back in these days you would go to a POrtuguese club to watch the games on satellite dishes on a pulled down projector screen lol. Beers we're flying, curses we're being yelled left right and center.

Euro 2000, how does one even describe this tournament we finally arrived on the WORLD STAGE as a somewhat respected Footballing Nation. That team was just another level above that of Euro '96 those guys we're just that much better. We deserved to win that tournament I still think till this day. We we're the best team, although France won, I recently went and re-watched that game and we we're the better team against the defending World Cup Champs. I will always remember that tournament till the day I"m buried. Heck even in the afterlife I will be telling that story of me at my friends house who was Lebanese and hyping up how good Portugal was and to be down 2-0 within the first 20 minutes against England LOL I was devestated to only have Luis Figo hit a ball that went through legs and into the top corner to have him run into the net get the ball and come running out with it. THE COMEBACK THAN WAS DONE WOW. To only lose in handball call with a few minutes left in extra-time and have Zidane take the Penalty(Golden Goal) to end that tournmanet. Where by many of our players we're suspended.

Now 2002 World Cup was jsut heartbreaking it ended with me crying over my freezer lol head down just in utter shock that we got knocked out by South Korea. I was pretty convinced we we're going to win that World Cup, but that was a tournmanet of shock. Hearing the announcer in English describing after Italy being knocked out by South Korea as well. "WHAT A TOURNAMENT IT HAS BEEN FIRST WE LOST FRANCE, THAN ARGENTINA, PORTUGAL AND WE ARE ABOUT TO LOSE ITALY................. Forgetful tournament to say the least going to a Niteclub here in Toronto at 2:45 in the morning to watch England vs Brazil lol to only watch Germany vs Brazil final in Montreal at a hotel lobby hungover as hell lol.

Euro 2004 - I'm going to skip this tournament because I still get full anxiety just thinking about it lol Like HOW THE F%@* Did we lose twice to Greece, It's a mystery of our Age, how do you get the carmel into a caramel bar type of question with no answer.
We should have won nothing more to say.

World Cup 2006 - Once again probably the best team in the tournament and played at a very high level. How amazing we controlled the midfield in those days taking it to teams with ease. We we're the TICKY TACA of passing football. Only to lose once again to France in a major semi-final and Zidane once again in a penalty shot to break our hearts. Only for us to redeem ourselves 10 years later.

Euro 2008 - This started the decline of our football compared to the previous years, but also brought on some workmanlike players to come into the fold. MAN IF QUARESMA had 8 years earlier than he did. Everything could have been so much more different. But I regress exciting game against Germany in the quarters, but we we're very impressive.

WC 2010 - Querioz playing style ruined that team and Ronaldo that's all that needs to be said. Ronaldo scored I believe 2 goals in his ERA that's INSANE. We we're in the Group of Death which would follow us for the next 2 tournaments proceeding. Losing to the eventual champions Spain(Deserving) it was the first game I ever saw us play full on defence and I was like why the hell are we playing so low. I had never seen our team seem so weak and vulnerable. We DICTATE THE GAME not anotehr team. This was something I had to get used to and bite my tongue over the next era.

Euro 2012 - Ronaldo was simply at his best and carried this team to the Semi's where by we actually played very well against Spain in the semi's and than extra time we just lost our legs and we're no longer in control. Overall I was pleased with our performance in this tournament. One lucky bounce and we easily could have been crowned Euro Champs just 4 years before we finally did.

WC 2014 - The highlight of this tournament was the qualifying games against Sweden, this team was poorly choosen and poorly prepared. It was the first tournament I went into as a skeptic adn was teling friends and family> Don't expect much from this team, they aren't going to do very well. I hate that I'm always right when it comes to our team lol When you watch every game or listen to it, you recognise the patterns.

Euro 2016 - Finally champions, going to keep this short and sweet. We didn't play to my liking and I felt we played below our capabilites. But WE WON, when Eder scored that goal and me falling to my knees with hands in face, just starting to ball like a baby. Finally a few decades of commitment I finally received the reward I so desired.

"Eder.......... Wiggles free of Koscielny....... EDER......... OOOOOOOHHH SUPERSTRIKE........ Eder smashes it into the Corner....... he has put Portugal on the Verge of GLORY" Words I will never forget

Now for this year's World Cup, let's be realistic this is going to be Ronaldo's last chance at a World Cup. I think anything short of Quarters and Finals is a big disappointment. But I have optimism and promise with some luck at the latter stages we can actually win this tournament . I too am concerned by the lack of playing time by some of key members of the team. But for the first time ever, I have never seen a team as deep as we have now. Not the strongest starting 11 i've ever seen, but good all around. I have always remained optomistic and never put the team and players down. At the end of the day they need our support. We are a very fickle group of fans. Cheer when we win, boo when we lose. Ever notice we aren't as loud as other nations. Well hopefully afterw inning Euro 2016 we will scream a little louder, wave a little higher and cry a lot less lol

Forca Portugal

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  1. Rolf Gerber

Can‘t wait the read, Nathan. The rational approach you are announcing is a good pill to cool down the suspense, the impatience and passion for the seleçao that unite us. Just watch: Isn‘t it amazing, how only the announcement of a series of...

Can‘t wait the read, Nathan. The rational approach you are announcing is a good pill to cool down the suspense, the impatience and passion for the seleçao that unite us. Just watch: Isn‘t it amazing, how only the announcement of a series of analytical world cup preview- articles already moves so many of us to comment? Beautiful, just amazing.

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  1. Emanuel    Rolf Gerber

Amazing comments above in regards to the Seleccao, Portugal definitely has the talent to compete with the best of them come this summer, baring all injuries of course, am just curious as to where Ronaldo is in terms of fitness, if Ronaldo can...

Amazing comments above in regards to the Seleccao, Portugal definitely has the talent to compete with the best of them come this summer, baring all injuries of course, am just curious as to where Ronaldo is in terms of fitness, if Ronaldo can give Portugal the same performance he gave us in the euro cup, then this team has a change to go far in Russia, Portugal needs to come out with a sense of urgency against Morocco and Iran, not to mention Spain, there are no easy games, no room for complacency here, we need to finish the group strong and set the tone for the rest of the tournament, one thing am hoping Portugal can do a bit better this world cup is to be a bit more physical, sometimes it seems, with the exception of Pepe, our players are afraid to get physical with certain teams, Germany comes to mind, Portugal often seems to lose 50/50 balls against such teams, our players need to be more physically assertive when going for the ball, get in the opposition's body, let them know you're here stay, if Portugal can do that, we will be a tough team to beat!!!

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  1. Medeiros

ALLAN MARQUES LOUREIRO!

Plays for Napoli, has a portuguese passport why hasnt he been called up?? Hes being ignored by Brazil and rumours are going around about a possible switch for Italy.

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  1. SupremoGino

Looking forward to this series. Enjoyed reading these great comments especially from Jon. My condolences for the passing of your grandfather. Futebol has always been an extraordinary passion of mine. I remember going to my grandparents house,...

Looking forward to this series. Enjoyed reading these great comments especially from Jon. My condolences for the passing of your grandfather. Futebol has always been an extraordinary passion of mine. I remember going to my grandparents house, weekends, my grandfather listening to CIRV FM which transmits RTP Antena 1 here in Canada. As a child, it was like living in a dream land every time I heard the "goooool" and laser sounds. Sadly my grandfather passed away early 04' and did not get to see the culmination of the Golden Generation and those magical games at Euro 2004 and World Cup 2006. Of course the years go by so fast.

But the way these moments bring the family together, and the excitement of winning games is a beautiful thing. It almost seems silly reflecting on it. But in the moment.. such as when Portugal won the Euros.. the adrenaline rush and joy for all of us Portuguese fans around the world is indescribable and my hope is that we get to experience this many more times in our lifetime.

As far as permutations go this June, the world stage has been traditionally overwhelming for Portugal for various reasons. 1998 did not qualify, 2002 south korea robbery, 2010 stunted by an overly defensive minded coach, 2014 injured out of form players. It irks me to even be reminded. This year I'm optimistic about our chances but at the same time thinking we're going to win the World Cup cannot be our mindset. We failed to get out of the group in the last world cup.. and the one before that, we undeservedly made it fully expecting to be decimated in the next round.

My point is the World Cup is a whole different ball game and the countries representing the different climates are a problem. The United States didn't qualify this time but who would've thunk the USA national team, comprised of mainly MLS players.. are physically stronger and have a superior stamina than our guys who compete in the world's top leagues. Look at how they pushed us around in the last friendly. The South American teams are a concern as well.

Therefore my thought is that we should be prepare ourselves where we will feel satisfied to qualify from the group stage and into the Round of 16, which will be an improvement from last time. If we advance from there and finish quarter-finalists or semi-finalists.. Portugal should be congratulated and the fans should be happy. Is this our best squad since the golden generation? True. Can they emulate what the golden generation did? That remains to be seen. Lack of playing time is an obvious concern. We will need everyone healthy and in form to even think about reaching the semi-finals. Even at our very best I cannot see us being favorites over Brazil or Germany. But luck also plays a role in these tournaments and that can never be factored out.

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QUOTE OF THE DAY

"My goatee? It's a joke I've got going with Quaresma. We were in the sauna and I said if I scored against Spain I wouldn't shave it off. I scored so it's staying there."

Cristiano Ronaldo
(Portugal captain after scoring for the second match running against Morocco)

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