On the eve of his country’s South Africa 2010 bow, Portugal’s captain is quietly confident. As his team finalised their preparations to face Côte d’Ivoire in Port Elizabeth on Tuesday, Cristiano Ronaldo told FIFA that, while A Selecção das Quinas may not rank among the favourites, anything is possible with their fans behind them and their customary team spirit to call upon.
In an exclusive interview with FIFA, the Real Madrid stiker expressed his delight at having the chance to take part in Africa’s first FIFA World Cup™. For Ronaldo, the differences between South Africa 2010 and Germany 2006 are obvious: “Yes, of course it’s different. It’s the first World Cup ever played in Africa and more importantly we’re playing in winter. But ever since we arrived the experience has been fantastic and I think that’s the way it is going to be until the final game of the tournament.”
Ronaldo happily admitted that Carlos Queiroz’s squad is revelling in the atmosphere. “We’re all very happy to be here. A lot of our squad haven’t played in a World Cup before, and so they’re desperate to play. We’re also confident that we’re going to play well and give a very good account of ourselves. Fortunately everything is going well so far.”
In spite of his relatively tender age, the 25-year old is one of the most experienced members of the Portugal squad and he will have the honour of wearing the captain’s armband at the finals, something he considers a genuine privilege. “What do you need to captain a team? Firstly, I think it’s important not to change what you do just because you’re captain, and above anything else, you have to be totally honest.
"Everyone has their own personality and character. I’ve got mine, and I don’t change who I am whether I’m captain or not. But of course, for me it is a privilege to be captain of Portugal. It makes me very proud. My team-mates know me very well, and I know them, and everything is going very well. There’s a great camaraderie in our squad, we’re great friends, and there’s a real family atmosphere. That’s the only way we can win and be successful.”
The Real Madrid talisman is one of world football’s biggest stars, and the focus of huge attention wherever he goes. The many thousands of people of Portuguese extraction who live in South Africa have offered him a hero's welcome, and Ronaldo is grateful for the reception he and his team-mates have been afforded. “Well, of course we knew that there were going to be lots of Portuguese here and that they would encourage the team and that makes us very happy," he said. "Having that little bit of extra backing when we’re on the pitch is crucial. And that’s why I would like to take the opportunity to thank the fans for all of their support so far.”
Naturally, those passionate Portuguese fans are dreaming of roaring their team towards FIFA World Cup™ glory. For his part, Ronaldo believes that his side are in with a genuine chance: “As I said before the finals, we’re not one of the favourites. But that doesn’t mean that a supposedly unfancied team can’t become world champions. I think that some of the teams at this World Cup have got a bit more about them than we have, and that’s no secret, but we’re going to fight all the way. We’re going to give it our best shot and if we do anything could happen.”
At the Portuguese helm is a coach who knows exactly what it takes to get to the summit of world football. Carlos Queiroz led his country to two FIFA U-20 World Cup titles, in 1989 and 1991, and his captain is quick to sing the praises of the man who will be hoping to repeat the trick with the senior side. “I got to know Carlos Queiroz a few years ago and fortunately for me I’ve had the pleasure and the privilege of working with him, firstly when I was at Manchester United and now with the national team. He has been crucial for my career because he has helped me to improve my style of play. I very much enjoy working with him.”
Not everything has gone smoothly for the Iberian side in the run-up to their FIFA World Cup opener. A shoulder injury robbed Manchester United winger Nani of the chance to play in the finals, and his former team-mate at Old Trafford will readily admit that he will miss his old friend, both on and off the pitch. “Nani was playing really well, he was in great form and obviously we’re going to miss him. Not only for what he can do on the pitch, but also because of his presence in the squad and the way that he would support his team-mates. He was a key player for us. Unfortunately he has picked up an injury and we’ve got some very good players who can take his place, but of course he will be a very big loss.”
One of the main talking points surrounding Portugal’s game with Côte d’Ivoire on Tuesday has been the fitness of the Africans’ star striker Didier Drogba and more specifically whether he will recover from injury in time to play some part in the game. Portugal’s own superstar, however, is less concerned about whether Drogba plays or not because, as he says, Les Elephants are not a one-man team.
He said: “Everybody is only talking about Drogba, and whether he plays or not, but to be honest, we’re not really thinking about that. We’re only concerned with ourselves. We’re feeling good, we’re confident and ready to make a good start to the competition. If Drogba doesn’t play, someone else will take his place and so we have to be ready. We just need to focus on ourselves."