Joao Cancelo has had a rollercoaster ride with Portugal but the City defender headed to the World Cup at the very top of his game.

Surprisingly, for one of the world’s most innovative and dynamic full-backs with 40 caps to his name, this was the first time the 28-year-old had the opportunity the chance to play in a major international tournament. 

With titles won in Portugal, Italy and, of course, two in England following his move to the Etihad Stadium in 2019, now is the time to show his talent on the international stage, with the carrot of a World Cup semi-final the reward if Portugal can see off Morocco.

It was way back in September 2016 that he made his debut for the national team scoring in a 5-0 friendly victory over Gibraltar in Porto... 

In fact, Cancelo started in style, scoring in each of his first three appearances for Portugal as he looked to establish himself in the set-up.

But those early highs were followed by dips in fortune that have left a trail of frustration in the vibrant red and green of his country.

After that brilliant start, Cancelo lost his place following a knee injury and he was then cut from the initial squad for the 2018 World Cup.

More bad luck was to follow when, after reclaiming his place in the side, he was the only Portugal player to miss the entire 2020 Euros after testing positive for COVID-19.

It was beginning to look like he might never get the opportunity to show his quality at a major international tournament and it was put into further doubt when automatic qualification for Qatar 2022 was denied when Portugal suffered a surprise 90th-minute home defeat to Serbia.

Suspended for the first play-off clash with Turkey, Cancelo could only watch on helplessly. But Portugal secured a 3-1 victory in Lisbon and then he returned to the side as a place was finally secured with a 2-0 win over North Macedonia. 

Now, he is finally getting his opportunity on the world stage, one of a heavy contingent from Manchester that includes United’s Bruno Fernandes, Diogo Dalot and Cristiano Ronaldo before his recent departure.

But it’s Cancelo and his City team-mates Ruben Dias and Bernardo Silva that have that winning pedigree more recently, having played a big part in back-to-back Premier League title triumphs. 

His flexibility to play on either side as a full-back has made Cancelo a crucial figure for Pep Guardiola and only Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk went into the tournament having played more domestic minutes this season before the start of the World Cup.

Guardiola has talked about his importance to the team and how his energy and movement have been so important to his side.

In the past, he has drawn comparisons with two defenders he has worked with in the past - Phillip Lahm at Bayern Munich and Dani Alves at Barcelona, both of whom are considered among the greatest full-backs of the past two decades. 

“Joao, since he arrived, he has played well, but he has one huge quality - he loves playing football,” the City boss said during last season’s title triumph.

“When you find a player like that, like Riyad [Mahrez], Phil [Foden] is like this - you have a diamond in your hands.

“Most players like football, but these three players I mentioned are like little boys playing in the street or in school. This is great. That is why Joao is consistent in his game.

“Like now he plays like Philipp did in Bayern when we were together. Philipp Lahm is the best player I’ve ever seen in my entire life at being a full-back moving inside. But Joao, like Dani Alves has the quality.”

Similarities to two such legends as Lahm and Alves was welcome praise going into a World Cup with both being icons of the tournament. 

The German defender played in three World Cups and was part of his nation’s triumph in 2014 while at 39, Alves enjoyed his fourth World Cup tournament - until Brazil's surprise exit to Croatia in the quarter-finals. 

An attacking full-back bursting with skill and flair, Alves is a particular inspiration for Cancelo.

“In my position, Daniel Alves is the top,” Cancelo said. “For me, the best full back in football's history.

“The best right back in football's history and a reference and inspiration for me as well.”

Alves was one of a number of stars for which Qatar is likely to be their last World Cup, along with Argentina’s Lionel Messi and Cancelo’s international team-mate Ronaldo. 

Portugal’s biggest triumph came at Euro 2016, just two months before Cancelo made his international debut, although they were also successful at the inaugural Nations League in 2019. 

But his potential as a world class star was clear from an early as he was coming through the Benfica Academy that also produced Bernardo and Dias and a host of stars for other clubs. 

Cancelo played for his country at every age level from the Under-16s onwards, often playing in a higher age bracket. 

He was close to glory at the Under-19 Euros in 2013 when Portugal reached the semi-finals in Lithuania but lost on penalties to eventual winners Serbia. 

At the Under-21 Euros two years later, Portugal went one better, reaching the final where they were again beaten on penalties, this time by Sweden. 

His former coach at Benfica, Joao Tralhao, saw something special as he was rising through the club’s academy and since moving to City, that potential has become a reality.

“He is very talented, he can play every position because he’s very clever, he understands the match tactically, his game knowledge is very high,” Tralhao told The Athletic. 

I think he sees things that only elite players can see in the match. He’s different from the others, he can see everything in every position.
Joao Tralhao

“That’s not usual for a full-back. If you play him as a midfielder on the right side he will play and he will be successful, if you play him as a winger, he will do the same.

“These kinds of qualities you don’t find in the modern day. I think with his talent he’s at a high level, a really, really, really high level. 

“Technically, when Joao has the ball, I don’t think we need much time to realise he is different to the others. 

“When I see Joao with the ball I used to say that the ball belongs to Joao, it belongs to his body, because his control of the ball is something special.”

Cancelo has proven his quality at club level during his time at the Etihad Stadium, now he can show it wearing the shirt of his nation who still dream of that elusive first World Cup triumph.

Victory over Morocco will leave A Seleção within sight of the prize all footballers dream of winning.

Jonathan Smith