Spain and Portugal will clash on Friday in the first high-profile encounter of the FIFA World Cup at the Fisht Olympic Stadium in Sochi. However, off-field happenings have dominated the news for both teams. While Spain’s FIFA World Cup preparations were thrown into turmoil on Wednesday as Real Madrid-bound coach Julen Lopetegui was fired on the eve of the tournament, just two days before their opening game in Russia, the Portuguese too have been hit by some unrest in the squad. Four of Fernando Santos’ squad have cancelled their Sporting Lisbon contracts following a chaotic season.
William Carvalho, Gelson Martins, Bruno Fernandes and Bas Dost joined Rui Patricio and Daniel Podence in filing notices with the Portuguese Securities Market Commission.
Meanwhile, in a bombshell development which followed the naming of Lopetegui as Real’s new coach on Tuesday, the Spanish federation confirmed that the 2010 World Cup winners had sacked their coach and replaced him with Fernando Hierro.
“We don’t have time to feel sorry for ourselves,” said Hierro, who was already working for the Spanish federation as sporting director. “The objective is to fight for a World Cup. The players have been working towards this for two years.
“I’ve told the players that we have a wonderful, exciting challenge and we can’t let this be an excuse to distract us from our dream.”
Cristiano Ronaldo will launch his latest and probably last attempt to crown his career with a World Cup winner’s medal when European champions Portugal face neighbours Spain.
It is worth wondering what Ronaldo might have known of Lopetegui’s imminent appointment at Real, given the relationship both have with Portuguese super-agent Jorge Mendes, at a time when the forward’s own club future remains the source of speculation.
But now, amid all that, Ronaldo’s focus is on the World Cup, the one major honour still missing from his CV.
It is a stretch to make Portugal one of the favourites to win the trophy, even with Ronaldo, but they are nevertheless in Russia as the reigning European champions after surprising France on home soil two years ago.
Ronaldo is 33 now, still in fantastic physical condition and the reigning Ballon d’Or winner. He can probably play on for as long as he wants, but it is hard to imagine him returning for a fifth World Cup in Qatar in 2022.
If he is to cap his career with a World Cup winner’s medal, then now is his time, and what better way to start than by inspiring Portugal to victory over their neighbours and put themselves in pole position in Group B.
“Of course Cristiano Ronaldo is the best player in the world at the moment and he will be the top player at this World Cup. There are no words to describe him,” said admiring team-mate Joao Mario at Portugal’s base near Moscow this week.
(With AFP Inputs)