Simao

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.

Exclusive interviews: 32 players from 32 nations

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 Ivo

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