How do you feel ahead of the World Cup? We are in a very difficult group with Brazil, Ivory Coast and North Korea and have to be at our best level to get through the group stage. That’s the most important thing for us – to get out of the group.
The Portuguese people have very high expectations from us. It’s a month of parties in Portugal and it’s 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.
I’ve not been to South Africa before, but I’ve been reading a lot about it on the internet. The stadiums look amazing.
Portugal struggled in the qualifying group and very nearly didn’t make it to South Africa… We had a very poor start, but we got stronger as the group went on and finished second. We played two tough qualifying games against Bosnia & Herzegovina and won both games 1-0. By winning away, we showed that we have the sprit to overcome difficult circumstances. But we’re in a good place now and confident. We have very good players – young players – but there are always smiles and jokes in the group.
What’s your earliest World Cup memory? Being 11 years old and watching Italia ’90 in my village in the north of Portugal. Most of the televisions were still black and white where I lived in 1990! Me and my friends loved football. We would wait for every game to be played, and then replay the game among ourselves the following day.
Portugal wasn’t in the competition, so I looked at foreign stars. Did you know that Portugal only qualified for one World Cup finals before 1986, and that was in England in 1966? This will only be our fifth World Cup finals.
You missed the 2002 World Cup through injury… I spent it in the Dominican Republic with my physiotherapist. I would wake up at five in the morning to watch Portugal. It was a very, very bad World Cup as we did not reach the second round.
And then you knocked England out of the 2006 World Cup… That was much better for Portugal. The whole tournament was excellent in terms of organisation and for us it was special to beat England on penalties. I was the first player to take a penalty and the referee took a long time to blow the whistle. I was waiting and waiting so that I could shoot. The whole stadium – the whole world – was watching. It was very stressful, a huge responsibility, but I took a deep breath and tried to remain ultra calm. It was difficult, but I practise a lot of penalties and always have. Before I shoot I try to look at the goalkeeper’s feet, to see how he moves when he dives.
We played France in the semi-finals and believed that we could get to the finals. We were confident and playing well, but France were too strong for us.
What do you know about Portugal’s opponents? Portugal v Brazil is always a great game and very difficult for both sides. The countries are historically very close culturally. We speak the same language and we have players who were born in Brazil. We have played lots of friendly games against Brazil so we know each other well. We usually do well. We meet Brazil in the third group game and I’m hoping that our group has already been decided by that stage.
We don’t know much about North Korea, but someone told me that they knocked Italy out of the 1966 World Cup. We don’t want any more surprises like that. I spoke with Eusebio about them. Eusebio is the most important player in Portuguese football history. When I played for Benfica I would speak to him every day and he would tell us great stories, such as about the Koreans and 1966. I wasn’t even born then so I just listened. Eusebio loves to talk and communicate his ideas and teach.
The Ivory Coast? They have powerful and fast players, but we have our own weapons and we’ll use them.
Like Cristiano Ronaldo? He’s our most important player. He didn’t have a great time qualifying because of injuries, but he’s hugely important. A player like Cristiano should be in the World Cup finals. There’s a lot of pressure on him, but he deals with it well and remains tranquil.
Which Brazilian players will you watch out for? Kaka. I’m sure Cristiano will tell us all that we need to know, but Kaka is a fantastic and well-rounded player. He is super, super explosive, technically good and always needs to be watched carefully. You don’t give Kaka space.
Who will win the competition? Spain are my favourites. They have been the strongest team in world football in the last three or four years – a young and yet experienced team.
Brazil have great players who play for the best clubs in the world and Portugal are very strong too. Holland is another team I like. They always have great players, but never go far in the World Cup. I think that could change this time.
England? England will do well. They prepared well and I think they want revenge for missing out on Euro 2008. England have fantastic players, but they are like Holland and don’t do well in tournaments. You don’t see England in the semi-finals very often.
Rooney is going through a good phase and scores a lot for Manchester and the national team. He’s a well-rounded player, who doesn’t just think about himself but the team too.
Lionel Messi or your compatriot, Cristiano Ronaldo? At this point I would have to say Messi. He’s going through a fantastic period and has won everything with Barcelona. He’s scoring a lot and has no injuries. He is small, strong, fast and can dribble and score. He is a player any football lover would want to watch. Cristiano was the best in 2008, but now Messi is enjoying fabulous form.
Interview: June 2010.