Canada's Stephen Eustaquio finds purpose in Copa America after losing his parents: ‘What am I here for?’

When Stephen Eustaquio walks onto the MetLife Stadium pitch to play arguably the most important game of his national team career, he’ll take a few moments to himself.

The Canada vice-captain will be thinking about the people who were always closest to him and who would have pined to watch him play against World Cup champions Argentina in the Copa America semifinal.

He’ll be thinking about how to play with purpose.

“If you asked me at 20 years old if, in every training session and every game, I was thinking about it being the last game of my life?” Eustaquio told The Athletic in an interview. “No, I was a kid, I was naïve. But now, I have to take into consideration: ‘OK, what am I here for?’”

Over the last year, Eustaquio’s life has changed in a way no one should have the misfortune of experiencing. Yet when he plays for Canada, he now realizes how much his life has come full circle, and how playing for his country has given him an opportunity.

Not just for him, of course. But instead, to honor the memory of his parents who died recently, and in tragic circumstances.

Eustaquio closes his eyes and immediately sees something so many Canadian players are accustomed to: the plastic fold-out chairs that are ubiquitous when the heat in southwestern Ontario cranks up in the summer months of soccer season and standing pitch-side at youth soccer is no longer an option.

For Eustaquio, it was impossible to separate his mother, Esmeralda, from his early days with the sport as a five-year-old in Leamington, Ontario and then afterwards in Portugal. She would drive him to and from games, she would listen to him thoughtfully break down performances and hear his equally detailed analysis of where he needed to improve, all from a young age.

Game days were almost always the same once Eustaquio’s club career hit its greatest heights when he signed with Porto in 2022, one of Portugal’s biggest clubs.

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Eustaquio has won six trophies with Porto (Maciej Rogowski/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

While the team would gather in a hotel the night before home games, Eustaquio would always be visited at home by Esmeralda. There’d be a home-cooked meal and the kind of conversation he still holds dear.

“We lived our lives to the fullest with each other,” Eustaquio said.

When Esmeralda was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2022, Eustaquio began thinking differently about his own life. He realized his purpose was less about fulfilling his own dream as a professional soccer player but using his own experience and resources to benefit those closest to him.

Immediately after the diagnosis, Eustaquio connected Esmeralda with Porto’s doctors to ensure she received the best treatment possible. Her condition still worsened throughout 2022. Neither she nor Eustaquio’s father, Armando, made the journey to Qatar to watch their son play in the 2022 World Cup.

Towards the end of her life, Esmeralda had all but lost the ability to even speak with her son. It saw Eustaquio become a shell of his former self.

“She was suffering,” Eustaquio said, growing quiet. “And there was this time when it was not healthy even for her. It was not healthy for my dad because he was on top of everything and trying to help her. It was not healthy for us.”

On April 15, 2023, Eustaquio tried to prepare as he normally would for a home game against Santa Clara. His mother was not there by his side in the days leading up to it, but he still knew that his father Armando, brother Mauro and girlfriend Constança would be in the stands watching him.

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Eustaquio during the game with Santa Clara on April 15 (Diogo Cardoso/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

Eustaquio emerged from the tunnel before the game and took his place standing in the starting XI to peer out into the crowd as he often did. The smiling faces of his family he was expecting to see were not there. Fear gripped him.

What he didn’t know was that, in the hours leading up to the game, Esmeralda had died.

Local television had become aware of the news and began running reports of her death and that Eustaquio was about to play a game. Eustaquio believes, looking back, that some fans in attendance likely knew as well.

Just 56 minutes into the match, Porto coach Sergio Conceicao substituted Eustaquio off the pitch. Eustaquio was fully fit and playing well, but Conceicao knew there were more important matters for him to tend to. Conceicao was one of the first people to seek him out; he knew what many others were learning.

Conceicao told Eustaquio only that his mother’s condition had worsened. Eustaquio walked towards the dressing room and saw his girlfriend and his mother’s doctor waiting for him. That’s when he realized his mother was gone.

“I didn’t want to be selfish and think, ‘I want my mother to live even in those conditions,’” Eustaquio said.

Nevertheless, how heartbreaking and cruel it was for Eustaquio to have to learn about his mother’s condition while so many around him already knew.

Conceicao offered Eustaquio nearly two weeks off from games and training to grieve. But he couldn’t do it: Eustaquio still wanted to play, after all, for his father.

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Eustaquio has already faced Argentina at the 2024 Copa America (Steve Dinberg/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

Armando didn’t always get to see his son play as much as a child and when he was developing. Armando worked on ferries shuttling back and forth between England and France, working two weeks on and two weeks off. The money he earned helped support his son’s soccer-playing dream before the youngster joined the Nazarenos amateurs team in Portugal.

Armando might have missed his son’s games at times when he was young, but the two never missed a chance to talk about Eustaquio’s games as a pro. Armando became a devout Porto fan, and it was the conversations the two had after games that Eustaquio most looked forward to.

In late April 2024, after working in France, Armando felt a pinch near his shoulder. Though he sought the advice of local doctors, he was informed his heart looked good and he might have suffered a pinched nerve. But three weeks later, Armando suffered a heart attack and died.

Now having lost both his parents separately within a year, the grief Eustaquio felt was immeasurable. In less than a year, the once boisterous and talkative Eustaquio was quiet.

Yet he did not want to return to a quiet home. Despite being offered more time off from the game by his club, Eustaquio was insistent: playing soccer almost immediately would ease his burdened mind.

Copa America is Eustaquio’s first major tournament since his father’s passing. And though some worried the heightened intensity of the games might become too emotionally overwhelming, the opposite is true. Playing for Canada is helping Eustaquio move on from his parents’ passing in a way he never imagined.

Eustaquio has learned how short life can truly be — and the importance of appreciating each day that comes to him. Past training sessions might have brought a less-than-stellar effort because, well, days get long.

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(Alex Slitz/Getty Images)

Yet Copa America is different. It is a chance to think of his parents every time he steps on the field and to play with the passion they instilled in him from an early age.

“If you lose somebody, you’re going to be more invested in everything that you can control in your life,” Eustaquio said.

Playing for Canada is a chance to honor his parents by being the leader for his team-mates through the values his parents instilled in him. Few more players show the same sense of pride and consistency in their games than Eustaquio; he wants his team-mates to see that.

“Once you get older, what changes are the relationships you have and the meaning you find,” Eustaquio said.

If any Canadian will be the one leading his team to heighten their focus against Argentina, it will be Eustaquio.

“Stephen is mentally maybe our most mature, careful, clear and secure person on the team,” Canada head coach Jesse Marsch said. “He’s really intelligent in terms of understanding what the demands are. So he goes unnoticed sometimes, but he’s clearly one of the most important guys in this whole project.”

And finally, playing for Canada has helped Eustaquio to understand what he does now may lead to a better life for his family in the future.

Eustaquio considers himself lucky because, just before Armando passed, his father was able to meet his granddaughter. In early April, Constança gave birth to Benedita, the couple’s first daughter.

“We thought, ‘They took away my mother but they gave us this gift,’” Eustaquio said.

Life is different for Eustaquio now. Playing for Canada has helped him grieve. And now, more than ever, Eustaquio understands what his parents went through — whether that was driving him throughout Portugal as Esmeralda did, or spending tiring hours on ferries to support his family financially, as Armando did. Every decision they made was with their children in mind. As he now does with Benedita.

“Now that I’m responsible for a family, my responsibility is to give them conditions for the future,” Eustaquio said.

“Right now, every training session I have, in every game I have, I might not be crazy about it but, at the same time, I understand that this is a big opportunity to go to another step where I can help my family, right?”

Eustaquio’s life could change even more with a win over Argentina and a berth in the Copa America final. Yet if it does, Eustaquio knows more than ever what he wants his life to look like.

“Everything I do, my perspective is to give my family the best conditions in the future through my work,” Eustaquio said. “You have a reason now to work, to live, to work.”

(Header photo: Omar Vega/Getty Images)

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