By Daniel Fernandes, Special to sportsnet.ca
His last name means “victory” in Portuguese, and at the moment Toronto’s Steven Vitoria and Estoril can’t stop winning.
Estoril is a newly promoted club in Portugal’s topflight with virtually no transfer budget who several odds-makers predicted would go right back down to the second division. But as we near the midway point of the season, Estoril is closer to a European berth than it is to the relegation zone.
The tiny club from south central Portugal currently sits sixth in the table and Vitoria has been key to their improbable run. The towering 25-year-old has scored four goals and is currently the Portuguese league’s highest scoring defender.
“We have a great group of players here, who work incredibly hard for each other. It’s not about individuals or individual stats. We work hard as a group and maintained this philosophy from the second division right on up,” Vitoria told Sportsnet.
It seems greater things are on the horizon for Vitoria, an automatic first-choice in the Estoril backline. His current contract is set to expire at the end of the 2012-13 campaign, but he can begin negotiating with other clubs in January for a new deal next season. While negotiations with Estoril remain on-going, the list of potential suitors is expected to be lengthy given his excellent displays this season which were highlighted by a goal against champions FC Porto.
It was Porto that signed Vitoria back in 2006 and brought him to Portugal from Canada.
“I have a lot of respect for Porto for everything they represent and everything they did for me early in my career. Scoring against them was very special moment for me personally, but we ended up losing the game 2-1. I would have traded that goal for a win,” said Vitoria, who also scored against Sporting CP earlier this season.
It appears Vitoria has all the key attributes of a quality center back but with an added bonus: he is a scoring threat on set plays. His versatility in dead-ball situations gives manager Marco Silva a tactical headache at times.
“Because Steven is tall and good in the air, he has not taken as many free kicks this season because we prefer him to attack the ball. We occasionally let him shoot from further out because he has a hammer of a right foot which can surprise the opposition,” Silva explained.
Vitoria remains the club’s primary penalty taker and has not missed a single spot kick in an Estoril shirt, going 14 for 14 in his career. Some of the goalkeepers he has scored on from the penalty spot this season include Olhanense’s Ricardo (who once saved a record three penalties in a 2006 World Cup match against England) and Rui Patricio (the current first-choice ‘keeper for Portugal’s national team.
“I played with Rui at the Under-20 World Cup. He has become one of Europe’s top goalkeepers. But you don’t think about that stuff when you’re taking a penalty. I ended up scoring and it was a nice moment,” Vitoria said.
Vitoria for Canada?
It was at the 2007 FIFA Under-20 World Cup in Canada where Vitoria first made headlines after earning a surprise call up to the Portuguese team. The Toronto-born player is still eligible to play for Canada’s senior national team and went public about this possibility back in September, one month before Canada was eliminated from 2014 World Cup qualifying.
“Prior to their final match against Honduras, Canada had a strong World Cup qualifying campaign. It’s unfortunate they are out because at times they looked brilliant. I’d like to thank Tony Fonseca and Stephen Hart for the patience they showed in me and respecting my decision regarding my international future,” Vitoria stated.
The Estoril defender is still open to playing for Canada down the road but admits he wants to focus on club football for the next few years.
“Just because Canada (is) out does not mean I am saying no,” said Vitoria, who is also eligible to play for Portugal but remains uncapped at the senior level.
Vitoria currently remains well off the Portuguese national team radar, a situation that could change if he gets regular first team football at a bigger club. The Portuguese depth chart at center-back is not as strong as in previous years and the current crop of central defenders is aging.
Pepe is 29 while Bruno Alves and Ricardo Costa are both 31. It’s not inconceivable to think that Vitoria, at a bigger club, could play his way back into the Portuguese national player pool — a scenario Vitoria did not want to speculate on.