There may come a time in what remains of the 2022 FIFA World Cup when Cristiano Ronaldo will play an integral role in the pursuit of his nation’s first-ever triumph at the biggest sporting event on the planet.
Or that time may not come at all.
And he is going to have to be cool with that, either way, or he will risk damaging one of the greatest legacies in the history of a sport in which he currently walks among such legends as Pele, Maradona, Johan Cruyff, Alfredo Di Stefano and his contemporary, Lionel Messi.
Ronaldo, 37, has raged against the dying of the light for the past couple years, perpetually displeased with his club situation as he approaches what passes for old age in his sport. Now his Portugal national team is in the World Cup quarterfinals for the first time since he arrived on the scene in 2006, still a kid, and started six games, including a semifinal loss to France on a Zinedine Zidane penalty.
Portugal won Euro 2016 (below) without him on the field at the end, subbed off after just 25 minutes when a severe tackle from France’s Dimitri Payet impacted his knee and Ronaldo could not continue. They may win this World Cup without him on at the start, or perhaps without him entirely.
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He is a grown man now, served as captain 136 times for his country. There is no other choice but to comport himself as pro. It will be, after all, Cristiano Ronaldo to whom the World Cup trophy is handed if this team wins three more games in Qatar.
Oh, and that scenario surely appeared plausible as Portugal, with Ronaldo on the bench at the start and replaced by 21-year-old Goncalo Ramos, shredded the Switzerland defense for a 6-1 victory in what many had initially viewed as the most evenly matched of the eight Round of 16 games.
Fernando Santos, head coach of Portugal’s national team since 2014, made the courageous decision to remove Ronaldo from the lineup after he had started each of three group games and scored one goal. Ramos, the player he installed at striker, had never previously started a game for his country and had three caps, two of them coming at the World Cup but lasting a combined 12 minutes.
Ramos (below) rang up a hat trick against Switzerland, starting with an extraordinary first goal in which his shot rifled into a tiny space between the keeper and the upper lefthand corner and nearly tore the roof off the net.
The Swiss had zero chance after that.
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“It’s a strategic option that we’ve been preparing for a few days,” Fernando Santos told media following the match, dispelling the notion that it was related to Ronaldo’s reaction to getting subbed off in the previous match against South Korea. “He is an example, and if he has to go into a game he will definitely help Portugal.”
Fernando Santos: “Was putting Ronaldo on the bench the hardest decision of my career? I’ve got a very close relationship with him. I’ve known him since he was 19 and I was his coach at Sporting. Neither Cristiano nor I confuse the human side with professional matters.”
— Tom Kundert (@PortuGoal1) December 6, 2022
When the game still was remotely competitive, at 4-0 early in the second half, Ronaldo drew wild applause from his many fans when he began to warm up on the sideline. He remained benched, and when the score reached 5-1, it seemed unlikely he would be asked to play in “garbage time” at the end of a blowout victory. Santos sent him onto the field, though, in the 73rd minute.
Ronaldo smirked as he waited to enter, accepted the captain’s armband from longtime teammate Pepe and then tried unsuccessfully to score during the time that remained.
At the final whistle, he went through the process of congratulating his teammates. We have seen Ronaldo ecstatic, or happy, and this was not that. We’ve also seen him petulant, and his behavior was far from that boundary.
After the match he went on Instagram and said all the right things: “Incredible day for Portugal, with a historic result in the biggest competition in world football. Rich display by a team full of talent and youth. Congratulations to our national team. The dream is alive! Until the end! Come on, Portugal!”
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Will Cristiano Ronaldo’s attitude change in Qatar?
Handling him has been a challenge since his final days at Juventus in summer 2021. When he then arrived at a Manchester United in need of far more than a single aging forward, however gifted and accomplished he might be, it declined from there.
Ronaldo scored 18 goals in 30 appearances, 27 of them starts, but Man United finished sixth in the Premier League and went through three different managers by the end of the 2021/22 season. When the Red Devils chose Dutch manager Erik ten Hag to reset their program, he considered Ronaldo a contributor, but not a regular starter.
In late October, Ronaldo walked off the bench and down the tunnel as Man United defeated Tottenham. The club suspended him for its subsequent game. In mid-November, just before the World Cup, an interview between Ronaldo and TV personality Piers Morgan was made public in which the player said he felt “betrayed” by Man United, that he believed he was being forced out of the club and, as far as Ten Haag, “I don’t have respect for him because he doesn’t show respect for me.” United announced they were parting with Ronaldo a few days later.
Ronaldo now is on the verge of a move to the Saudi Arabia league that will yield an astonishing payday but little reward.
In the 1970s, American soccer fans saw how Pele accepted the limitations that the years had imposed on his ability to compete, and he retired gracefully, gratefully saluting the crowd after a tribute match between the New York Cosmos and Santos, the only two clubs he had ever served. Lionel Messi wavered, but then fought to remain at FC Barcelona until the club’s profligate business practices forced him to depart.
Ronaldo has records that match or supersede these superstars. He is the first men’s player to score at five World Cups. He has more international goals than any other man. Only 70 men’s players, ever, have even 50 national team goals. Ronaldo has 118. He has the third-most caps of all time, and is the only player in the top three to have appeared in the World Cup.
He has won three Premier League titles, two in La Liga, two in Serie A and five UEFA Champions League trophies. He has won the Ballon d’Or as the world’s best player five times.
There is no doubting his greatness. There still are questions, as he approaches the exit, about his excellence.
How the next five days develop for Ronaldo — or two weeks, if things go really great for the Portugal team — will do much to answer those.
Fernando Santos may need him to help chase a late goal if the team is behind, or to help close out a narrow victory, or even to start if someone in the attack is injured. The legends are prepared for any occasion.