By Daniel Fernandes, sportsnet.ca
Portuguese club Benfica has announced the signing of Canadian defender Steven Vitoria to a three-year deal.
Vitoria, a 26-year-old native of Toronto, joins Benfica on a free transfer from Estoril where he had a breakout 2012-13 season in Portugal’s first division. Vitoria, who plays primarily as a central defender, led Estoril in scoring with 11 goals and helped the newly-promoted club qualify for the UEFA Europa League with a fifth-place finish.
"This is the happiest day of my life. Right now, I want to continue working hard in order to help Benfica achieve their goals for the upcoming season. Growing up in Canada I remember my dad always talking about Benfica. So from a young age I knew this is a massive club with a big following in Canada. I hope I have made Canadians proud," Vitoria told reporters during a press conference.
Competition for places in central defence at Benfica will be fierce.
Argentine international Ezequiel Garay and club captain Luisao anchor the back line on a regular basis for the Lisbon club, while veteran Jardel and former Portuguese U-21 defender Roderick Miranda are next in line on the team’s defensive depth chart.
However, interest in Garay among Europe’s top clubs is said to be high. Benfica usually sells one or two star players in the off-season to help balance their debts and, for the right price, Garay could very well be leaving Lisbon. Garay’s exit would open up a spot in Benfica’s starting 11.
Benfica finished runners-up in Portugal last season, which qualified them directly into the UEFA Champions League group stage. Vitoria admits he is excited by the prospect of Champions League football next season.
"Benfica are an ambitious club that try and compete at all levels. That is why I wanted to come here. Every player dreams of playing at the highest level, and hopefully I get the chance to achieve this goal," Vitoria said.
Vitoria, who is eligible to play internationally for Canada and Portugal, remains undecided on his international future.
If Vitoria is able to get regular playing time, he will unquestionably attract the attention of Portuguese national team manager Paulo Bento. Portugal’s depth in central defence is not as strong as it has been in previous years with the likes of Bruno Alves, Pepe and Ricardo Costa all in their 30s.
And with very few Portuguese defenders getting regular playing time with the bigger clubs domestically, Vitoria could become an automatic choice if he is able to establish himself at Benfica.
Back in October, Vitoria told sportsnet.ca that he would be open to the idea of playing for Canada internationally. But he has seemingly backtracked on that statement following Canada’s early exit from World Cup qualifying.
Vitoria, who represented Portugal at the FIFA Under-20 World Cup held in Canada in 2007, said he is in no rush to make a decision on his international future but admits a call-up to the Portuguese team would be very tempting.
"It would be a huge honour to play for Portugal, but right now no discussions have been had," Vitoria admitted.