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Ronaldo & Bruno Fernandes out, Leao & Ramos in: How will Portugal line up at the 2026 World Cup?

12:00 GMT 12/12/2022
Portugal World Cup 2026 GFX
The country's greatest-ever player couldn't deliver Portugal the biggest prize of all, so can the next generation now step up in four years' time?

And so it's (probably) official: Cristiano Ronaldo, for all his greatness, will end his career having never won the World Cup. Portugal's wait for the biggest trophy of them all goes on, their campaign in Qatar ended as Morocco made history in the quarter-finals.

This might not the blast we see of Ronaldo at a major tournament. While he has hinted at international retirement, the European Championship is just 18 months away, and Ronaldo will certainly believe he has something offer, even at 39.

Playing at another World Cup when he reaches the age of 41 is, however, surely above even the great man, and so the Selecao must now start planning for the next generation to carry the torch for their country.

The good news is, there are loads of talented players coming through in Portugal, with some already established internationals while others are just making their way into first teams at their clubs.

But who among them has a chance to be in the line up the next time the World Cup is played in 2026? GOAL breaks down their options...

  • Diogo Costa Portugal 2022

    GK: Diogo Costa

    Costa only recently took over as Portugal's No.1 goalkeeper, but the Porto shot-stopper looks primed to be the man between the sticks for a long time given he only recently turned 23.

    His excellent penalty-saving record certainly makes him an asset for tournament football, and though he still has some improvements to make to his game, Costa profiles as one of the next generation's best 'keepers.

    In terms of younger players to watch, Benfica duo Samuel Soares (20) and Andre Gomes (18) are both highly-rated, and are the current No.1s for Portugal's Under-21s and U19s, respectively.

  • Joao Cancelo Portugal 2022

    RB: Joao Cancelo

    Cancelo had a World Cup to forget in Qatar, as the Manchester City man struggled for form before being dropped to bench for the knockout stages.

    His quality, however, is clear, while his versatility is also helpful at tournaments, and so while he will be 32 by the time the next World Cup kicks-off, it would be a shock were he not still in contention to start.

    Diogo Dalot (23), who replaced Cancelo at right-back over the past couple of weeks, is the obvious alternative, especially if he can continue to be a starter for Manchester United.

    There are high hopes, too, for Sporting C.P. teenager Goncalo Esteves, who has already played in both the Portuguese top-flight and the Champions League before his 19th birthday.

  • Antonio Silva Portugal 2022

    CB: Antonio Silva

    Silva's rise has been meteoric, as he went from making his first-team debut for Benfica at the end of August to starting for his country in the World Cup just over three months later.

    Perhaps unsurprisingly, the 19-year-old is now being linked with the great and good of European football, with Benfica likely to make a huge profit on yet another homegrown talent in the next couple of years.

    Others who could factor in the centre-back discussion over the next four years include Lille's Tiago Djalo (22) and Braga's David Carmo (23), both of whom were called-up to recent Portugal squads before failing to make the World Cup roster.

  • Goncalo Inacio Sporting C.P. 2022-23

    CB: Goncalo Inacio

    Ruben Dias may seem like the obvious answer when it comes to Silva's long-term partner at the heart of the Portugal defence, but there are some concerns that he has struggled to replicate his form from the 2020-21 season over the past 18 months.

    The Manchester City man will be 29 when the next World Cup kicks-off and should be in his prime years, but for now we've gone for the younger man in Sporting's Inacio.

    The 21-year-old has been linked with Manchester United and Barcelona in recent months, and though he is yet to be capped by his country, that should change now that the likes of Pepe and Jose Fonte will be moving on.

    Others who will be hopeful of pushing on and earning international recognition before 2026 include Hoffenheim's Eduardo Quaresma (20) and Servette teenager Diogo Monteiro (17).

  • Nuno Mendes Portugal 2022

    LB: Nuno Mendes

    Nuno Mendes' first World Cup ended with him leaving the field in tears before half-time against Uruguay, as the injury he picked up shortly before the tournament quickly caught up with him.

    The good news for the Paris Saint-Germain left-back is that, at 20, he will have plenty more chances to make his mark on the global stage, and there will be an expectation that he is one of the world's best in his position in 2026.

    Raphael Guerreiro, who stepped in to replace Mendes in Qatar, might fancy he has one more World Cup in him given he will be 31 at the point of the next tournament, while Arsenal's Nuno Tavares (22) can't be discounted as a potential option quite yet.

  • Ruben Neves Portugal 2022

    CM: Ruben Neves

    A firm candidate to take over the Portugal captaincy in the coming years, Neves was in and out of the team in Qatar, but the Wolves star will be hoping to lock down a regular role before the next World Cup.

    Still only 25, the ex-Porto starlet is only now entering his peak years, and so expect Neves to go from strength to strength, even if he has to move away from Molineux to do so.

    Neves' fellow Premier League midfielder, Fulham's Joao Palhinha, could be a different option, though he is a couple of years older, while there is excitement surrounding Sporting teenager Dario Essugo (17), who is the Lisbon outfit's youngest-ever player and seen as a top-tier talent.

  • Vitinha Portugal 2022

    CM: Vitinha

    Neves will need a more creative option alongside him in midfield, and after getting a first taste of World Cup action in Qatar, Vitinha should be primed and ready to step into the line up before 2026.

    The PSG man is only 22, but looks to have a big future in the game, and has the ability to provide a spark from a deeper role behind the forward line.

    He is not the only player at Parc des Princes who will be eyeing that role, however, with Renato Sanches' international career unlikely to be over at the age of 25, even if he didn't make the squad in 2022.

    He was omitted to make space for Wolves Matheus Nunes (24), and though Premier League fans have not seen the best of him yet, the summer signing from Sporting is certainly a talent.

    Another new arrival in England, Arsenal's Fabio Vieira (22) is currently the Portugal U21s captains and will be hoping to show enough at the Emirates Stadium to graduate to the senior squad soon enough.

  • Diogo Jota Portugal 2022

    RW: Diogo Jota

    It is in attacking areas where Portugal perhaps have the most depth, and thus picking just four players to potentially start in 2026 promises to be a tough task for whomever is managing the Selecao.

    We've gone for Jota, who missed out on the 2022 World Cup due to injury but will still only be 29 when the 2026 edition kicks-off and has the potential to head to the tournament as one of Liverpool's star men.

    Current incumbent Bernardo Silva is a couple of years older than Jota, but there is no reason why he couldn't keep his spot at the age of 31, and so don't be surprised if the Man City man beats Jota out in three-and-a-half years.

    Younger alternatives who will at least be eyeing a place in the squad for 2026 are Ajax's Francisco Conceicao (19) - the son of ex-international and current Porto boss, Sergio - and Benfica's Diego Moreira (18), who has been linked with Man City after some superb performances in the UEFA Youth League.

  • Joao Felix Portugal 2022

    CAM: Joao Felix

    Bruno Fernandes might not be happy about being pushed out of the line up given he will still only be 31 at the next World Cup, but it's clear that Portugal need to start building their attack around Felix.

    The 23-year-old showed enough in Qatar to suggest that he is ready to take up the mantle, and if - as expected - he leaves Atletico Madrid in the coming months, he could very quickly show why he was so highly-rated as a teenager at Benfica.

    The man who replaced Fernandes at Sporting, Pedro Goncalves, will also fancy his chances of breaking into the squad after two-and-a-half superb seasons in Liga NOS.

  • Rafael Leao Portugal 2022

    LW: Rafael Leao

    Though he was mostly used as an impact substitute in Qatar, Leao showed with his two goals and all-around play just why so many of Europe's biggest clubs are keen to spend big money on signing him.

    The reigning Serie A MVP will turn 27 during the next World Cup, and he has the chance to enter the tournament as a genuine superstar of the world game if his current trajectory continues.

    Expect him to be joined in the squad by Pedro Neto, who has had rotten injury luck at Wolves over the past year but who, at 22, still has plenty of time on his side.

    Keep an eye out, too, for Man City winger Carlos Borges (18), who has been rattling up goals and assists for fun over the past few years in English youth-team football and is now seen as being ready to make the step up to the men's game.

  • Goncalo Ramos Portugal 2022

    ST: Goncalo Ramos

    Replacing a player of Cristiano Ronaldo's stature shouldn't be as easy as Ramos made it look with his hat-trick against Switzerland, and the hope for him now is that is not all he is remembered for.

    Given he is only 21, the odds are that the Benfica striker will have plenty more moments in the spotlight going forward, and his goalscoring record already suggests he has what it takes to at least get close to filling the Ronaldo-shaped void that is about to emerge.

    Others, though, will also be eyeing the soon-to-be-vacated central striker role, including Andre Silva, with the RB Leipzig star still only 27 and far from done at the top level.

    Ramos' Benfica team-mate Henrique Araujo (20) and Wolves Fabio Silva (20) were both goal machines at youth level, and though they are yet to fully translate that into the senior game, theirs is a knack that cannot be overlooked.

    A name to remember, meanwhile, is Rodrigo Ribeiro (17), who has already played in the Champions League for Sporting and who has been spoken about as the next special talent to emerge from the club's academy for a couple of years.