Photo: The Canadian Press
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.
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.
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.
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.
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