World Cup 2022: Crying Cristiano Ronaldo mourns the end of a dream and, perhaps, an era


There were tears in the tunnel. Cristiano Ronaldo has spent too much of 2022 struggling to contain his emotions. This time, at least, he could be forgiven for displaying them. There may have been an element of selfishness about the way the substitute stalked off the pitch, leaving his teammates to commiserate with each other and acknowledge the outnumbered Portuguese contingent in the stands.

Certainly, a man who knows the cameras are trained on him scarcely felt supportive when shaking his head as Ruben Dias and Diogo Costa erred while Youssef En-Nesyri headed in the only goal; it was a Ronaldo-esque finish, but they often are, given the range and volume of goals he has scored over the last two decades.

An hour later, as the victorious Moroccans kneeled down in front of their raucous supporters, Ronaldo was crying for himself, for his dream. He will not complete the set. Lionel Messi may yet win the World Cup but Ronaldo won’t. One ambition will elude him, one medal escape him. The private grief may have been the reaction of a self-centred individual but, in a sense, his has been a solitary quest. He was the only survivor of the side who lost the 2006 semi-final to France but there will not be a second meeting with Les Bleus in the last four.

Even when Ronaldo was dropped, after 18 years as an automatic choice, when his replacement Goncalo Ramos scored a hat-trick against Switzerland, it opened up new possibilities: that he could lift a trophy won by younger forwards in a team of greater potency, that he could even be the super-sub who delivered the World Cup-winning goal. “We thought we could reach the final and win the final,” Fernando Santos said. Portugal had the talent but, as Ronaldo was crowded out by Morocco’s phalanx of defenders, it was not to be.

There may yet be a happy ending for a veteran Ballon d’Or winner, but for Messi or Luka Modric, who have seemed able to bend this tournament to their will. Not for Ronaldo, though. He will be 41 when the next World Cup starts and this has been the year where, definitively, eventually, his powers have waned, along with his allure to managers. Eusebio will remain Portugal’s record scorer in World Cups. A Brazilian will remain the World Cup’s greatest Ronaldo. Cristiano Ronaldo will never get a goal in its knockout stages.

For him, elimination to Morocco, in a tie when Portugal were favourites, seemed a final embarrassment in a tournament littered with personal ignominies. To recap his World Cup, he got released by his club, scored from a penalty that probably wasn’t a penalty, got given the man-of-the-match award when he was not the best player on the pitch, claimed a Bruno Fernandes goal he did not touch, seemed to exert such an influence that no one from Portugal would admit it was not his goal, got substituted and then saw Fernandes score a spot kick, contributed to a goal for South Korea, got substituted and reacted with a display of dissent that even his long-term ally Santos criticised, got demoted, saw a stand-in 16 years his junior score three times, came on and had a goal disallowed because he was at least three yards offside, was omitted again, came on and had 10 touches in 50 minutes, the only notable one a shot Bono saved, and cried when Morocco won.

Santos, the loyalist who had finally stripped him of his privileged status when benching him, defended his reaction. “If we take two persons that were the most upset, it was Cristiano Ronaldo and myself but that is part of the job of the coach and the player,” he said, And yet he said he had no regrets about benching Ronaldo: the evidence against the talisman had started to stack up. Perhaps he should have done it sooner.

Should Messi, like Lothar Matthaus, play in five World Cups and win one, then Ronaldo will be in a select group with three Mexicans of footballers who appeared in a quintet without the final glory. It has been a 16-year odyssey, from the bright beginning in 2006, when he was the tournament’s outstanding youngster, even if his time in Germany is remembered for a wink as Wayne Rooney was sent off. His most productive tournament came in 2018, featuring his brilliant hat-trick against Spain. In 2010, he blamed Carlos Queiroz after Portugal’s only goals came against North Korea. In 2014, when he was otherwise at his peak, he was hampered by injury and Portugal were ejected in the group stages. He has been the record scorer in the European Championships, the Champions League and international football but for a player of such a stature, it amounts to an underwhelming World Cup career.

A crying Ronaldo echoed a tearful Luis Suarez, another for whom it was a World Cup too far; in each case, schadenfreude could abound. Yet as Ronaldo stalked down the tunnel at the Al Thumama, it was tempting to wonder if it is the last many of us will see of him, and not merely in a World Cup. His most lucrative offer in his search for a club is from Saudi Arabia; the evidence is that he would not get into an elite European side. Now his preferential treatment is ending with Portugal, a forward line could be planned around Ramos, Joao Felix and Rafael Leao, who went underused in Qatar, aided and abetted by Bernardo Silva and Bruno Fernandes. He is on 196 caps and surely wants 200, for another extraordinary record, but plans to continue until Euro 2024 may have to be abandoned, unless he is willing to reinvent himself as a replacement.

It is a sign of his longevity that the last major tournament without Ronaldo was the 2002 World Cup. Now Euro 2024 might be the next one. This may not just have been the end of a World Cup, or even all. They were tears for the player he was and the career he has had, for the powers and the status he has lost. Because 2022 may have been the last year Ronaldo plays in the World Cup, Champions League and Premier League, for Manchester United and perhaps for Portugal.

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