This is some World Cup that Cristiano Ronaldo is having. Forget for a moment the self-immolation of that Piers Morgan interview, which torched his legacy at Manchester United and appears to have ended his career at the elite level of European football too. Instead focus only what has taken place just since the start of this tournament. There’s still plenty to go at.
Since winning and converting a highly questionable penalty in Portugal’s opening game, he has claimed to score a goal he did not touch, set up another for the opposition by cowering at a set-piece, flounced off the pitch in a barrage, and, as a result of that outburst, he has now been dropped from the starting line-up – a decision that heralded a statement 6-1 victory and arguably the best team performance seen in Qatar.
An exile at club level, a substitute internationally: the world’s most popular, famous and marketable person to be currently between jobs is arguably at the lowest point of his career – a career that all but one of his peers could only dream of, that has redefined what it means to be a success in this sport, that has remodelled the sport itself along the way. What now for a player who has almost had it all? What next for the man that appears about to lose it all? Well, a World Cup quarter-final, perhaps.
‘Perhaps’ being the operative word. Will he even play? Gonçalo Ramos did everything in his power to ensure Ronaldo doesn’t immediately win his place back in the last eight against Morocco. The Benfica striker surely has to retain his spot after a display that provided the goals Ronaldo supposedly guarantees but also much, much more. “Goncalo has different characteristics,” said head coach Fernando Santos. “He is very dynamic. That’s the observation I made and that is what he ended up showing us.”
Ramos’ movement off the ball when Portugal were in possession and his willingness to chase down Switzerland players when out of it could not have provided a greater contrast to Ronaldo’s more stationary, static interpretation of a centre-forward’s role. By offering different angles for the likes of Joao Felix, Bruno Fernandes and Bernardo Silva to find, Ramos brought an entirely new dimension to Portugal’s play, one that belied their reputation as a dour and conservative outfit under Santos and instead played some of the most expansive football of the tournament.
This must be the way forward from here. You would think so, at least, even though when Santos was asked about the prospect of Ronaldo winning his place back, he was predictably non-committal. “All the players who are with me can be used and if they are not in the starting 11 they can play later,” he said.
But this is the man who has known Ronaldo longer than any other prominent figure still working in football, who helped bring him up through Sporting Clube de Portugal’s youth system, and who at full time still felt able to describe their relationship as “very close”. Santos vowed that emotion has not and will not play a part in his decisions. “Ronaldo and I never misinterpret the human and personal aspect with that of manager and player,” he said. And yet, there was also an olive branch.
Santos may have made his displeasure with Ronaldo’s tantrum against South Korea public but that is now water under the bridge. “This is something that is finished and solved,” he insisted. “It is also important to look at the example of this player’s history. He is one of the best players in the world and therefore all we have to do is come in collectively.” It would seem that even from here, there is a potential route back into the starting line-up.
On a night rich with symbolism and significance, where the storylines effectively wrote themselves, the one quirk was Ronaldo’s reaction to each of goals – especially the five that were scored while he was still on the substitutes bench. Rather than looking on sullen and stony-faced, Ronaldo smiled, applauded and even celebrated some of the six strikes. He played the role of the perfect teammate, showing none of the petulance that many might have expected. It was the one aspect of the evening that did not entirely fit the pre-packed narrative.
And if that felt out of character, then the best explanation as to why he was acting this way is probably the simplest one. Ronaldo is smart. His pride may be great, so too his sense of self-esteem, but both are big enough to take a hit in service of something even greater. He will be perfectly aware that he is now two games away from a World Cup final. Blowing up his United career cost him the chance to appear in the Europa League playoff round. Doing the same at international level would deprive him of playing at the pinnacle of the sport.
And so he was clapping, he was cheerleading, he was practically sprinting through the post-match mixed zone, refusing to the opportunity to strike back at those responsible for one of the greatest indignities of his international career. If he has to do all of that to have a chance of playing on the stage where he believes he still belongs, in a game that he believes he is destined to play in, then so be it. Your first instinct when the team sheets were published at the Lusail on Tuesday night was to write his career’s obituary. That urge only grew stronger as events unfolded and the night went on. But this is some World Cup that Ronaldo is having and it isn’t over yet.
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