Long, hard slog to Euro semis for Portugal's Fonte
By Brian Homewood
LYON, France (Reuters) - It has been a long, hard slog to the European Championship semi-finals for Portugal defender Jose Fonte.
When his country reached the last four in 2012, the centre half had just helped Southampton win promotion to the English Premier League and the idea of playing international football was but a distant dream.
Fonte, who at one point spent a season in the English third tier, could not even remember where he was when his nation lost to Spain on penalties four years ago, saying he was "probably with my family in Portugal".
On Wednesday, he is likely to be in the side that faces Wales with a good chance of reaching the final for the second time in 12 years.
"It's a story of work and sacrifice but also a great deal of pride," the 32-year-old told reporters on Tuesday.
Fonte was raised at Sporting Lisbon, the same club as Cristiano Ronaldo, although their careers have gone vastly different ways.
While Ronaldo has enjoyed fame and fortune at Real Madrid, Fonte has travelled from Felgueiras in the Portuguese second tier to Vitoria Setubal and then to Pacos de Ferreira, followed by three seasons in the English second division with Crystal Palace.
He dropped down to the third tier to join Southampton and has been with them through their rise to the top flight.
"I had to work very hard and I was loaned from club to club, always trying to improve in different clubs, and getting to England was the best thing that happened to me," said Fonte. "I learned a lot as a person and player.
"I reached higher levels, I had more success, promotions, then got to the Premier League which helped me fulfil the biggest dream of all."
With Southampton doing well in the top division, he eventually got his chance with Portugal and made his debut two years ago.
"Playing for Portugal means the world to me," said Fonte. "I've always had the ambition and desire and belief I could get there.
"When I got to the Premier League I thought I would be closer to my dream...fortunately we have been able to progress at Southampton and that gave me the opportunity to be selected. It's something I am proud of and will always cherish."
Fonte added that Portugal have always believed they could reach the final.
"The coach (Fernando Santos) said it from the first day," he said.
(Editing by Tony Jimenez)