After decades of mediocrity and frustration, it seems things are finally looking up for Canadian soccer. Canada will host the 2026 FIFA World Cup alongside the United States and Mexico, and they could be set to advance to the first World Cup since 1986. The Canucks begin the first round of 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifying matches this month, facing off against Bermuda and the Cayman Islands, and for the first time ever, they have a treasure trove of talented young footballers who are establishing themselves in Europe’s major leagues.
Alphonso Davies has emerged as the talisman of the nation’s footballing growth, winning the treble with Bayern Munich and nailing down a starting spot at left back under Hans-Dieter Flick, whilst also delivering stellar performances for Canada in the 2019 CONCACAF Gold Cup. Jonathan David earned a €20 million move to Lille following an excellent campaign for Gent that saw him finish as the league’s joint-top scorer, and while he initially struggled in France, he has netted seven goals for Les Dogues since the start of the year.
There is, however, one lesser-known Canuck who is enjoying a stellar campaign in Europe. Unlike David and Davies, Stephen Eustáquio was born in Canada, and unlike David and Davies, he isn’t a player who will dazzle spectators with his close control, change of pace, cold-blooded finishing in front of goal, or ability to wreak havoc in the final third, but he is proving to be a vital cog in Paços de Ferreira’s campaign.
Photo: Getty Images
Born in Leamington, Ontario to Portuguese parents, Eustáquio moved to Portugal at the age of seven, originally beginning his footballing development with Grupo Desportivo Os Nazarenos, an amateur club in the coastal town of Nazaré. He remained here until 2010 when he moved to União de Leiria, a club in central Portugal. However, after they were relegated from the first division to the third tier due to financial difficulties, Eustáquio decided to move to Sport Clube União Torreense in 2014.
Eustáquio remained in Torres Vedras for two seasons, cutting his teeth in Portugal’s third division and eventually joining second-tier side Leixões Sport Club on June 7, 2017. His impressive performances at the Matosinhos-based club saw him attract the attention of the Portuguese Football Federation, with Eustáquio earning a call-up for the 2019 UEFA European Under-21 Championship qualifiers.
He made his debut for the Esperanças on November 10, 2017, playing the full 90 minutes against Romania in a 1-1 draw in Constanța. He convinced manager Rui Jorge of his worth, with Eustáquio starting the following qualifier as Portugal defeated Switzerland at the Estádio da Mata Real. Little did he know that he would end up becoming a fan favorite at the very same stadium just two years later.
Shortly after his 21st birthday, Eustáquio joined Grupo Desportivo de Chaves on a five-and-a-half-year deal, with the recently promoted club paying his buyout clause of €500,000 on January 31, 2018. Under the tutelage of current Shakhtar Donetsk manager Luís Castro, Eustáquio would finally get his first opportunity in the Primeira, starting in a 2-1 away victory against Feirense just four days after his arrival.
While he was mainly used off the bench in his first few months in Chaves, Eustáquio’s big break came on April 14, coming on as a substitute for Jefferson in an away match against Boavista. After going down 1-3 in the 77th minute, Eustáquio fired a volley from outside the box and slammed a rocket of a shot past Vagner and into the bottom right corner of the net. Eight minutes later, he slid a deft backheel towards the onrushing Renato Bressan, whose shot rebounded off the palms of Vagner and into the path of Platiny, who tucked home the equalizer.
From that point on, Eustáquio solidified a starting spot next to captain Pedro Tiba and Bressan, playing as the anchor in the midfield trio. After sealing promotion to the top flight for the first time in 17 years, Chaves finished sixth in the Primeira, just four points behind Rio Ave, who sealed the final Europa League spot.
Eustáquio continued his momentum in the following campaign, scoring a late equaliser in a Taça da Liga match against Porto to lead Chaves to their first-ever point at the Estádio do Dragão and earning interest from Real Betis, Sporting, Newcastle United, Manchester City, Monaco, and Barcelona. However, to the surprise of everyone, he joined Cruz Azul on January 15, 2019, with the Mexican side paying a fee of $3 million for the midfielder.
Photo: Imago 7
It was Portuguese manager Pedro Caixinha who demanded Eustáquio’s signing following the departure of Argentina international Iván Marcone to Boca Juniors. Having arrived on a four-year contract, expectations were high for his debut against Club Tijuana. Cruz Azul broke the deadlock via a penalty goal from Elias Hernández, and in order to protect the lead, Caixinha subbed on Eustáquio for Roberto Alvarado in the 57th minute.
His debut began and ended on the wrong foot. Within seconds of coming on, Eustáquio was sent off for an ugly tackle on Miller Bolaños, but upon VAR review, referee Óscar Mejía changed the red to a yellow. It proved to be a curse in disguise rather than a blessing; after attempting to elude Tijuana midfielder Javier Salas, he landed awkwardly and left the Estadio Azteca in a stretcher. It would be the only 22 minutes that he would ever play in Liga MX.
Eustáquio missed the next eight months with an ACL injury, and when he did return to full fitness, Caixinha had been replaced by Uruguayan manager Robert Siboldi. He did, however, make one career-definining decision during his time in the treatment table; on February 20, 2019, he committed to play for the Canadian national team, joining his older brother Mauro, who had previous played for Canada’s U-20 and U-20 teams.
He made his debut on November 15, 2019 in Orlando, coming on as a substitute for Mark-Anthony Kaye in a 1-4 defeat to the United States in a CONCACAF Nations League match. One month after making his debut for Canada, Eustáquio returned to Portugal, joining Paços de Ferreira on loan until the end of the season. He quickly became one of the first names on the team sheet under Pepa, and it was little surprise when Paços de Ferreira and Cruz Azul agreed to extend his loan for another season.
This season, Eustáquio has reached a new level for Os Castores, who currently sit fifth in the Primeira table with a three-point gap over Vitória de Guimarães for the final Europa League spot. At 24 years of age, he has not only rediscovered the form that saw him become a sensation at Chaves, but established himself as one of the finest midfielders in Portugal. It’s why, on January 31, Paços de Ferreira made Eustáquio’s loan permanent, paying a club-record €2.5 million for the midfielder.
Eustáquio’s contract ties him to the club through June 2024, but he could be entering his final months with the club. Porto, Sporting, and Benfica are reportedly interested in signing him this summer, and there’s plenty of reasons why he could be an excellent reinforcement in the middle of the pitch for each of Os Três Grandes. He is a complete midfielder in every sense of the word, and by taking a look at his performance in Paços de Ferreira’s 3-2 victory over Porto on October 31, we can get an even better idea of his attributes.
In the defensive side of his game, Eustáquio stands out due to his intelligence and aggression, knowing how to step in and make a tackle and win the ball back from his opponent. He is a dogged worker who is always willing to run the extra mile in order to protect the defense and ensure that the opposition does not receive the ball in advantageous areas.
As Diogo Leite looks to play a pass in between the lines, Eustáquio steps up in an attempt to maintain compactness and cut off the passing angle, but he overcommits, allowing Leite to find Evanilson in space. However, just as the Brazilian striker is attempting to control the pass and turn towards goal, Eustáquio quickly sprints back and succeeds in winning the ball back.
The Canadian international leads outfield players in the Primeira for ball recoveries with 150, ranking 13th overall in Liga NOS. He ranks 11th alongside Enzo Martínez of Tondela and Nicolás Otamendi of Benfica when it comes to interceptions with 35; Paços defenders Marco Baixinho and Fernando Fonseca narrowly trail him with 34 and 32, respectively. He is also tied with Belenenses midfielder Tiago Esgaio for the sixth-most tackles won in Liga NOS (33).
When watching Eustáquio, it’s easy to see why he stands out in nearly every statistical category. He combines positional awareness with a tireless work ethic, and despite just being 5’10” and 146 lbs, he is no slouch when it comes to both aerial and physical duels. It is no coincidence that both at Chaves and at Paços, he has been tasked with the role of defensive midfielder.
As Leite weighs up a pass, Eustáquio reads the direction of the pass and rushes towards Evanilson, who Leite looks set to find due to his body shape. Before the ex-Fluminense man can receive the pass, Eustáquio has already closed down the space between them, intercepted the ball, and launched a potential counter-attack.
Eustáquio sprints forward and lays off a short pass to the onrushing Hélder Ferreira, who plays a majestic cross with his first touch and finds Luther Singh in space on the left flank. The South African winger cuts inside and plays a through ball to Dor Jan on the edge of the box, and after the Israeli striker’s shot is originally saved by Agustín Marchesín, Jan follows up and coolly slots the ball into the empty net.
After Jan opened the scoring for Paços de Ferreira, the home side came perilously close to doubling their lead right before halftime. Eustáquio takes advantage of Otávio’s errant header, controlling the loose ball and deftly turning to evade Wilson Manafá, before spotting the run of Hélder Ferreira. Always keeping his head up to look for the right pass, he slides in a through ball to Ferreira on the right flank.
Ferreira receives the pass in acres of space and finds Jan in the center of the box, but he slipped and padded the ball into the path of Singh, who made no mistake with the finish. However, after VAR review, it was ruled that Ferreira was an inch offside, and the goal was justly called off.
Nevertheless, Paços de Ferreira would get another chance to double their lead before halftime. After Marco Baixinho intercepted Sérgio Oliveira’s errant pass, Baixinho quickly dished it off to Bruno Costa, who played another quick, short pass to veteran midfielder Luíz Carlos. As Carlos’ pass bounced towards Eustáquio, the Canadian played a magnificent cross-field half-volley towards the right flank.
Without even needing to turn his body, Eustáquio stays cool under pressure from Chancel Mbemba and once again finds Hélder in ample space on the right flank. The Portuguese winger takes a touch before finding Eustáquio arriving in the box, and he tucks the ball past Marchesín and into the bottom left corner. Two years after scoring a late equalizer against Porto, Eustáquio had repeated his heroics, this time in a yellow shirt.
Eustáquio would come close to another goal in the second half, only for his shot to rattle off the post. Not to worry; with a goal from Jan, who came in for injured top scorer Douglas Tanque at the last minute, and a goal from Eustáquio, and a penalty goal from Bruno Costa, who had spent 11 years at Porto, Paços de Ferreira had enough in the tank to narrowly defeat the defending champions at the Estádio da Mata Real.
Overall, Eustáquio is a remarkable young midfielder who is capable of operating either as a holding midfielder or a box-to-box midfielder. While he has only registered 2 goals and 1 assist in 23 appearances this season, his ability to find teammates between the lines, read the game, and patiently maneuver the pressure, he is invaluable to Paços’ attacking strategy. If there is one thing he must work on, however, it is the timing of his tackles, as he often leaves his team exposed with his aggressive pressing and fails to recover possession.
Paços de Ferreira are on track to qualify for European football for the first time since 2013 and it is thanks in large part to Stephen Eustáquio, who is the second-most utilized player in the entire squad, only behind goalkeeper Jordi. After a nightmarish spell in Mexico, Eustáquio is back in Portugal and demonstrating why he has everything it takes to become a crucial figure for club and country over the next decade.
By: Jaime Silva
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Gualter Fatia / Getty Images Sport