New Portugal coach Martínez pledges to talk to Ronaldo

LISBON, Portugal (AP) — Former Belgium coach Roberto Martínez was hired to lead Portugal’s national team on Monday and pledged to respect Cristiano Ronaldo’s history with the squad.

The Spaniard replaces Fernando Santos, who quit in December after Portugal’s elimination against Morocco in the quarterfinals of the World Cup. Santos left amid the controversy of benching Ronaldo in the knockout stage of the tournament in Qatar.

“I want to talk to everyone. The list of 26 players from the last World Cup will be my starting point, and Cristiano was part of that list,” Martínez said. “He has been with the national team for 19 years and deserves the respect of us sitting down and talking. We want to get to know all players, and Cristiano is one of them.”

Martínez ended his six-year stint with Belgium after the team’s disappointing group-stage elimination at the World Cup, when he again failed to lead the nation’s golden generation to a triumph.

He arrives to a Portugal team filled with talented players like Bernardo Silva, Bruno Fernandes and João Félix, but also amid doubts over the future of the 37-year-old Ronaldo, who is now playing in Saudi Arabia.

“It’s my job to try to give all players an opportunity, and to respect the ones who are already with the national team, including Cristiano Ronaldo,” Martínez said. “It’s a process that will have to occur naturally. We have a lot of work and a lot of responsibility, and we will have to make some important decisions for the national team.”

Martínez said there are 54 Portuguese players in the top five European leagues who are 28 or younger and who will be looked at closely.

“Portuguese players always adapt well in the top leagues and give their clubs great competitiveness,” Martínez said. “I’m excited about the winning mentality of the Portuguese players. The goal is to keep dreaming big.”

The 49-year-old Martínez coached Belgium to a third-place finish at the 2018 World Cup and to the quarterfinals of the 2020 European Championship. The Belgians were ranked No. 1 by FIFA for four years during Martínez’s tenure but never won a major tournament despite having talented players like Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku, the country’s all-time leading scorer.

Martínez had said he made the decision to leave Belgium before the World Cup in Qatar. He was also the national team’s technical director since 2020.

Martínez played and coached in England before he was hired by Belgium in 2016. His most impressive achievement in club management was winning the FA Cup with Wigan in 2013. The club was eventually relegated from the Premier League that same season, with Martínez then appointed by Everton, where he lasted three years before being fired.

The 68-year-old Santos left after eight years in charge of Portugal, having led the national team to titles in the 2016 European Championship — the country’s first major trophy — and the 2019 Nations League. He reached an agreement with the federation to leave two years before his contract was to end.

“It’s always easier to replace a great coach,” Martínez said. “We can try to continue the great things that Santos had been doing.”

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

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AP sports: https://apnews.com/hub/sports and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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