The book of Cristiano Ronaldo has one more chapter. After Qatar comes the appendix.
We enter uncharted waters now. Not since Achilles went on that egotistical solo run at the Troy World Cup has a nation’s greatest athlete become its glaring weakness.
Ronaldo’s club career in Europe is finished. Life as a handsomely paid Saudi stooge beckons. Before the Switzerland match, Portugal manager Fernando Santos stared into the void and knew he had to discard the 37-year-old.
Ronaldo signed his own international death warrant by appearing to spit expletives at Santos when subbed off against South Korea. He later claimed it was directed at a Korean player, but it looks like the coach wasn’t so sure.
A prima donna cannot lead a team. Ronaldo does not run any more. He has never pressed, not for Real Madrid, not for Manchester United (part 1). He will never track back, he has always abided by the Kobe Bryant code of “there is no ‘i’ in team but there is one in ‘win’.”
Even Juventus, a basket case of a club, knew to offload him to the Glazer meltdown at Manchester United. He still scored goals, but the golden period of impacting entire games is over.
Ronaldo no longer wins matches on his own. Cruelly, for Stephen Kenny anyway, the last time he did was against the Republic of Ireland in September 2021.
He is done as Portugal’s starting striker. Gonçalo Ramos hammered the final nail in the coffin with a hat-trick against the Swiss. But all the ingredients remain for a Hitchcockian twist.
Santos is no fool. Nobody else has lasted eight years as Ronaldo’s manager. Not Zinédine Zidane, not José Mourinho, not Alex Ferguson. Santos knows this fading star remains useful in two scenarios, one of which is all but guaranteed to transpire if Portugal are to win the World Cup.
Ronaldo must not come off the bench if Portugal are leading against Morocco – same goes for a semi-final or final. He is too much of a liability. All he does is stand and moan, forcing Bruno Fernandes and João Félix to create the goal he has never scored in the knockout rounds across five World Cups.
I think this is the end of the road for Morocco. Portugal, now they have discarded Ronaldo, can score two or three, unless Sofyan Amrabat – an incredible holding midfielder who looks to be bound for Liverpool – and Azzedine Ounahi clamp down on Fernandes and Félix.
Tall order. Sitting back, like the Moroccans did so well against Canada and Spain, will not be enough. I see Ronaldo being benched for the full 90 minutes, unless Portugal go 3-0 up and he is given a charity run. That said, if the game is deadlocked, he becomes a weapon in the second half of extra-time.
When he’s on the pitch Portugal become a nine-man defensive unit. He doesn’t show for the ball any more, he no longer moves like the Real Madrid Ronaldo, he cannot get across a defender at the front post. He can still leap like a salmon and that’s worth a punt if Portugal go a goal down to Morocco. But only with 15 minutes remaining.
Not sure about The Irish Times readership, but on the Algarve but this opinion will sink like a lead balloon in many a deluded Portuguese mind. I know a few Canadian residents of Portuguese decent and, after the phalanx of photographers ignored the starting XI singing the national anthem before the Switzerland game to snap Ronaldo, they told me how proud they were of him.
“Are you having a laugh?”
“Classy, he handled it so well.”
“What Santos has done.”
“Portugal won 6-1 without him! The team came alive with Ramos up top, running and scrapping and scoring as good a hat-trick as you’ll see!”
“Ronaldo rose above it all.”
“Did you see him sulk down the tunnel when the Portugal squad and management went to applaud the fans?”
I may as well have been trying to engage with the 71 million Americans who voted for (I refuse to type his name). Such star power is intoxicating, nauseating, yet addictive.
But 118 international goals need not be the end. I can see one final act. Portugal were class against the Swiss but they will need something special to win a World Cup final, something perhaps only Ronaldo can give them in a penalty shoot-out. Santos will play the odds. Who else would you choose to take the fifth penalty in Lusail on November 18th? Let Bruno take the first, let Cristiano slam home the winner.
It’s possible. Unlikely, but possible that he lifts the World Cup, like he lifted the Euros trophy in 2016 after going off injured in the final.
Contrast the last humiliating chapter of the Ronaldo story with the dignity shown by Lionel Messi as the curtain descends. To Ronaldo, Messi was always the arch-nemesis, an impossible player to compete against, yet Ronaldo made it possible by scoring goals and winning at a level we might never see again.
Now look how the current Portuguese players moved so easily beyond their deposed skipper. Look at the difference to how the Argentinian players revere Messi.
I think Messi never saw Ronaldo as a rival, he was only chasing after Diego Maradona’s cosmic kite from the 1986 World Cup. But Ronaldo still wants to surpass Messi, he wants to be better looking than everyone but, as wealthy as the Saudis will make him, pride always comes before the fall.