It’s a new era for Portugal as it begins European Championship qualifying under a new coach and with Cristiano Ronaldo far away from soccer’s biggest stadiums.
Portugal starts its Euro 2024 qualifying campaign at home against Liechtenstein in Group J on Thursday, with Roberto Martínez debuting as coach and Ronaldo still in the squad.
“It was all in the balance after the World Cup,” Ronaldo said Wednesday. “I reflected with my family and then we came to the conclusion that it was not time to throw in the towel. I learned a lot from it and I’m very happy to be back. The coach says he wants me in the squad. I feel that I still have a lot to give and I want to keep it going.”
It will be Ronaldo’s first appearance with Portugal since leaving Europe for Saudi club Al Nassr after a mostly disappointing stint with Manchester United. He is set to break the all-time record of appearances with a national team after tying Bader Al-Mutawa’s mark of 196 outings for Kuwait during last year’s World Cup.
“Records are always positive,” Ronaldo said. “They are my motivation. I like to break records and this record is special. I’ll be really proud if it happens, but I want to keep playing even more games, I don’t want to stop here.”
Martínez is taking over from Fernando Santos, who quit in December after Portugal’s elimination by 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.
“It’s a new chapter for everyone, for the players, the staff and the country,” Ronaldo said. “We feel good energy. It’s a breath of fresh air. I’m not saying that it’s better or worse than before, but sometimes in life changes are positive. There are new ideas, a new mindset. You can notice it. You can feel the change and that is good for everyone.”
Santos was in charge of Portugal for eight years, leading the national team to the Euro 2016 title — the country’s first major trophy — and the 2019 Nations League title. He reached an agreement with the federation to leave two years before his contract was to end.
Martínez ended his six-year stint with Belgium after the team’s disappointing group-stage elimination at the World Cup. He arrived pledging to respect Ronaldo’s history with the national team and said Ronaldo will be among the team captains.
“I am surprised by the level of commitment of the players to the national team,” Martínez said. “Everyone can play. We are starting a new cycle and we want the best. Ronaldo is part of the best and we need his experience.”
In addition to Ronaldo, Martínez will inherit a squad filled with talented players such as Bernardo Silva, Bruno Fernandes, Diogo Jota, Gonçalo Ramos and João Félix. The coach made few changes to the squad, with 40-year-old defender Pepe also returning to play alongside the 38-year-old Ronaldo.
“We were briefly introduced to him on the training field,” Félix said about Martínez. “He explained to us some of his ideas, mainly for these two games, which are going to be very similar. He talked about the attacking dynamic, the connections between wingers and strikers.”
Félix downplayed Portugal’s chances in the matches against Liechtenstein and at Luxembourg on Sunday.
“We always have to be prepared and not take any game lightly,” he said. “We have the recent example of the World Cup, when everyone thought we were going to get past Morocco and we didn’t. It’s always complicated, it’s always the best from each country, and everyone plays each game like it is a final. All games will be difficult, both at home and away. We have to be cautious.”
Portugal is unbeaten against Liechtenstein, with six wins and a draw in seven matches.
Porto goalkeeper Diogo Costa was dropped Wednesday because of a muscle injury and replaced by Celton Biai, who plays for Vitoria Guimaraes.
Portugal’s Euro 2024 qualifying group also includes Iceland, Slovakia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The top two nations from each of the 10 groups qualify for the final tournament in Germany.
Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni
AP sports: https://apnews.com/hub/sports and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports
Copyright © 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.