x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Voyagers Portugal and Ivory Coast cross paths again

Before 2002, Portugal had reached the World Cup finals just once since and Ivory Coast scraped their way into the finals winning just one of their first five group games.

Simao, right, and Cristiano Ronaldo, left, will lead Portugal against Ivory Coast.
Simao, right, and Cristiano Ronaldo, left, will lead Portugal against Ivory Coast.

Ronaldo has not scored for his country in 16 months but says he is not worried Semi-finalists in Germany four years ago, Portugal have been a force in international football for the past decade and top 10 regulars in the world rankings. As they prepare to play their first game of the tournament against Ivory Coast in the southern coastal city of Port Elizabeth, they do so against a backdrop of high hopes at home.

"The Portuguese people have very high expectations from us," Simao, the winger and vice captain, said. "It will be a month of parties in Portugal and it is always the same: they expect us to reach the final. This year they want us to win the competition. That level of expectation is not easy." History is not on the side of the 20 million Portuguese around the world. Before 2002, Portugal had reached the World Cup finals just once since their great side of 1966 starring Eusebio - who was born in Mozambique, South Africa's neighbour.

Carlos Quieroz's team were also unimpressive in qualification, winning just one of their first five group games before scraping through to a play-off spot. They then overcame Bosnia and Herzegovina 1-0 home and away to reach their third successive finals, where they were placed in a tough group with Brazil, Ivory Coast and North Korea. 

Today's game will be played in an unforgiving environment alien to both nations. Winter in Port Elizabeth is wet, windy and cold. And while the tourist brochures show a shimmering new stadium on the banks of a serene lake, they do not mention that the new Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium is in the tough part of the city, where it is can be unsafe to walk the streets.

Sven-Goran Eriksson's Ivory Coast are much fancied. The golden generation of Ivorian footballers like the Toure brothers, Soloman Kalou, Emmanuel Eboue, Didier Zokora and Didier Drogba, who must get approval from Fifa to wear a cast to protect his broken his arm, remain their stars. "We know all about Drogba, he's a great player," said Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal's main man, "but we can't get preoccupied with him. We must concentrate on our team, our tactics and our ambitions. That's the only way to win.

"The most important thing is to get to the second round and if it's as group winners, that would be better," said the Real Madrid star. "If not and we have to play Spain, there will be no need to fear them. We are going to play to win, or try to win." Ronaldo's form for Portugal has been patchy, and despite a glut of goals for his club, he has not scored for his country in 16 months. "I am not worried," Ronaldo said. "I am just plugging away as usual."

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