Canadian international Stephen Eustáquio is no stranger to performing under the brightest lights, and his second Champions League goal last Tuesday reiterated it.
The 25-year-old pounced on a cross from Brazilian winger Galeno to lead FC Porto past Atletico Madrid and into the knockout stages. He has become a vital cog in the Porto midfield, and he has carried that form for Team Canada as well.
Born in Leamington, Ont., to Portuguese parents, Eustáquio moved to Portugal when he was seven. He started his journey in professional soccer with Portuguese third division side Torreense, but his journey with the sport began in the Great White North.
“Canada was the first place I remember kicking a football. I have big dreams when it comes to playing for Canada,” he said, during his first promo for Team Canada in 2019. “You see players like Atiba Hutchinson, Junior Hoilett, and Alphonso Davies play for Bayern, and they’ve taken the country to another level, and I just want to be part of it.”
Eustáquio represented Canada’s under-17 team once at the 2012 AGS Cup, but a few years later, he found himself on Portugal’s Under-21 team alongside future stars like Joao Felix and Diogo Jota.
His consistent displays in the Primeira Liga finally earned him a big move to Liga MX side Cruz Azul in January 2019. But Eustaquio had a heartbreaking debut — he was stretchered off with an ACL injury.
During his recovery period, Eustáquio made a big decision by committing his international future to Canada. One of the key factors for his decision was Canada coach John Herdman’s patient approach.
“(Herdman) never really pushed my brother to make a decision,” Mauro Eustáquio said. “He always informed him that they wanted to understand what he was, how he was feeling and how he was desired. John always put the ball on his court, and my brother likes that. He doesn’t like to be pushed around. John’s approach was super natural, super human. And I think that’s what convinced him.”
Stephen Eustáquio made his debut for Canada later that year, when he came off the bench in a 4-1 defeat against USA in a CONCACAF Nations League game. Since then, he has made 26 appearances for the senior team and has scored thrice.
His club career took off when he was loaned to Portuguese first division side, Pacos de Ferreira in December 2019 for the rest of the season. The quality was obvious, and Pacos signed him to another loan, before making the move permanent in January 2021 for a €2.5 million fee.
Just a year later, in January 2022, Eustáquio’s hard work paid off after FC Porto came calling. It was an initial loan, and his impressive displays earned him a permanent move in May when Porto exercised the buy option.
“It was unbelievable,” Mauro said. “They had been in talks for over a year before he actually signed. I’m so proud of him to be able to compete and help such a big club like that. It was a moment of joy; it was a moment of responsibility. Because if you get called up to a club like that, that brings a lot of responsibility.”
The 25-year-old is now one of the first names on the team sheet for Porto, and his experience in the Champions League will be crucial when he laces up for Team Canada.
Eustáquio had strong displays against the likes of Atletico Madrid, Bayer Leverkusen, and Rangers in the UCL group stage games.
But the World Cup will be a test like none other, as Eustáquio will be battling the likes of Kevin De Bruyne and Luka Modric in midfield in the first two games.
“(Canada) will be under so much pressure, particularly in the first two matches… and it will be Eustáquio’s bravery on the ball and the ability to unlock the defence with a key pass,” said TSN soccer analyst Kevin Kilbane. “He will be key for Canada in Qatar.”
While the midfield looks uncertain right now for Herdman’s men, Eustáquio is the only name that is likely confirmed. Captain Atiba Hutchinson could feature alongside the Porto midfielder in a two-man centre midfield pairing if he isn’t employed as a center-back.
The World Cup is the biggest stage in Eustáquio’s career so far, but his brother believes this is only the start for the Porto midfielder.
“It’s been some journey,” Mauro said. “And this is still the beginning for him. He’s still young. A lot of good things are happening to him and it’s all due to his commitment, discipline and work ethic.”
Canada will begin their 2022 FIFA World Cup campaign on Nov. 23 when they take on Belgium in the second game for Group F. Canada will follow that up with games against Croatia on Nov. 27 and Morocco on Dec. 1.