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There’s Life Without Ronaldo for Portugal—Even If His Presence Lingers

There’s Life Without Ronaldo for Portugal—Even If His Presence Lingers

For so long, Ronaldo has been synonymous with Portugal’s fortunes. With the 37-year-old boldly reduced to a reserve in a last-16 rout, that’s no longer necessary.

LUSAIL, Qatar — At the hour mark, the chant began rolling toward the field from fans seated in the highest reaches of Lusail Iconic Stadium. Portugal had treated them to a remarkable showcase of attacking football, but they remained unsatisfied.

“Ronaldo! Ronaldo! Ronaldo!”

Four minutes later, the cheer echoed around the towering, 88,000-seat arena again.

Gonçalo Ramos was in no position to give them Ronaldo, who remained in that moment where he started Tuesday’s game, on the bench in a yellow vest. Ramos isn’t Portugal’s manager. So the Benfica forward, who wasn't yet born the last time A Seleção kicked off a major knockout game without Ronaldo on the field, did what he could to give those fans something to remember. He scored his third goal of the evening, and the fourth of his fledgling international career, to punctuate Portugal’s remarkable 6—1, round-of-16 demolition of Switzerland.

Ramos was a surprise starter and scored a hat trick for Portugal vs. Switzerland.

Cao Can/Xinhua/Imago Images

Planet football seems to perpetually and obsessively revolve around Ronaldo, so he naturally overshadowed the buildup to a match that would determine the eighth and final quarterfinalist at this World Cup. CR7 lives in the headlines. He drew and converted a penalty kick in Portugal’s Thanksgiving Day win over Ghana, becoming the first man to score in five World Cup tournaments. Four days later, the notoriously goal-hungry celebrity striker briefly celebrated a Bruno Fernandes tally as if it was his own. Adidas had to weigh in and inform the world that the technology inside its ball never detected his touch.

Then the noise increased. With Portugal’s second-round qualification secured, Ronaldo was substituted earlier than usual in Friday’s loss to South Korea, and cameras—because they’re always pointed at him—captured his reaction. He jawed at a Korean player urging him to exit faster, then gave coach Fernando Santos a cold shoulder/eye roll combination as he shuffled toward the bench.

"Have I already watched the footage? Yes. I didn't like it. Didn't like it at all. From there, it's things you sort out internally,” Santos said later.

As rumors swirled about the free agent’s alleged $500 million offer from Saudi club Al Nassr, there was a sense that Ronaldo’s indomitable facade was crumbling. The same question asked about Manchester United before Ronaldo’s sensational November interview with Piers Morgan necessitated his departure was heard and written in Qatar: Was Portugal somehow better off without its aging, temperamental icon?

If Tuesday’s display didn’t answer that question—it was just one game—it did at least confirm that there will be life and hope post-Ronaldo. Fernandes, 28—Ronaldo’s former United teammate—and Atlético Madrid winger João Félix, 23, were unplayable, slicing through the sedentary Swiss with slick passes, feints and smart running. And then there was Ramos, the 21-year-old contesting his fourth senior international, who made his Portugal debut in a pre-World Cup friendly only three weeks ago. His club form convinced Santos to bring Ramos to Qatar. He had scored eight goals in his previous 10 games with Benfica. And his mobility convinced Santos to roll the dice as Portugal aimed for its first World Cup quarterfinal berth since 2006.

“Cristiano is more fixed. He stays in a more determined area, with a lot of quality obviously,” Santos said, adding that his decision to bench Ronaldo was tactical and not disciplinary. “Gonçalo Ramos is very dynamic. He looks for opportunities. … The observations I made [watching him] stood out very clearly, and that’s what he ended up showing.”

The veteran manager continued, “We intend to have a team that plays with a lot of fluidity. I would say we played very well today.”

Photographers lined up during the Portugal anthem not to focus on the starters, but instead with their lenses on Ronaldo and the reserves.

Mike Egerton/PA Images/Imago Images

Switzerland is no pushover. The 15th-ranked team in the world, the Nati were appearing in their fifth straight World Cup. European sides like Italy, Netherlands, Belgium, Croatia, Denmark and Sweden can’t say that. And only three other nations—France, Brazil and Argentina—competed in their third straight round of 16 this week. Switzerland also beat Portugal, 1–0, in UEFA Nations League play in June. 

But the Swiss were hammered by illness. Coach Murat Yakin said defenders Silvan Widmer and Nico Elvedi were sick and that Fabian Schär, who was beaten badly on Portugal’s first two goals, was having trouble breathing and was replaced at halftime. And they managed almost nothing going forward. Yakin tried to improvise with a 3-5-2, but it was a disaster. Ramos opened the scoring on an exquisite turn and blast to the upper left corner in the 17th minute. Then 39-year-old defender Pepe, wearing the captain’s armband in Ronaldo’s stead, became the oldest male player to score in a World Cup knockout game with a sharp 33rd-minute header.

A few minutes after halftime, it became apparent that Ramos was going to do everything in his burgeoning power to make Tuesday’s game about him. It was dynamism on display, as he broke quickly toward the near post and deftly redirected a cross from Manchester United’s Diogo Dalot. Ramos also assisted on Raphaël Guerreiro’s 55th-minute goal, Portugal’s fourth. Switzerland pulled one back on a corner kick before Ramos sealed the World Cup’s first knockout-stage hat trick in 32 years with a 67th-minute run and chip over goalkeeper Yann Sommer (Félix had the assist). Ramos is also the youngest player with three goals in a knockout game since a 17-year-old Pelé decimated France in a 1958 semifinal.

“Great talent,” Portugal and Manchester City midfielder Bernardo Silva said in the Lusail mixed zone. “Not just that, not just his quality—because he’s got that striker's smell, knowing where the ball is gonna land to finish the action but also, great lad. A worker, a worker, in terms of always trying to do what's best for the team and not best for him.”

The fans got what they were asking for in the 74th minute as Ronaldo entered a World Cup match off the bench for the first time in his legendary career. His 84th-minute finish was ruled out by an offside call, and he remains without a goal in a World Cup knockout match. This was going to be Ramos’s night.

Ronaldo was a late substitute for Portugal vs. Switzerland, with its quarterfinal place already secure.

David Klein/Sportimage/Imago Images

“Not even in my wildest dreams, did I dream of being part of the starting XI for the knockout phase of the World Cup and scoring a hat trick,” said Ramos, who said his idols growing up were Robert Lewandowski, Zlatan Ibrahimović and, of course, Ronaldo.

Both Ramos and Santos said that Portugal would have to forget this performance ahead of Saturday’s quarterfinal against Morocco, the one upstart left in this tournament. Can’t get too high. Can’t get distracted. Despite the stage, however, Ronaldo almost surely will continue to be the topic of conversation. 

"Sometimes people are not very happy, but we have to deal with it. At this moment, what’s most important, and I just told the players, is in four days we have another match,” Santos said.

“As I’ve already said … I think those issues [with Ronaldo] have been solved,” he continued. “This is something that is finished and solved. It’s very important to look at the example of this player’s history. He’s one of the greatest players in the world—in terms of being a professional, as a captain, the number of goals he scored, how he came in [to Tuesday’s game] with a lot of will. All we have to do is think about this team collectively.”

Santos concluded by referencing the fact that he’s known Ronaldo since the player was 19, and that their “strong relationship” has “only developed” over the years.

“Ronaldo and I never misinterpret the human and personal aspect with that of manager and player,” he said. “He’s a very important player to have in the team.”

Ronaldo celebrates Ramos’s first goal with the rest of Portugal’s reserves, racing to the corner with the starters.

Joel Marklund/Bildbyran/Imago Images

Ronaldo celebrated those early goals with his teammates, racing with the rest of the substitutes to the corner flag while wearing his yellow vest. He joined the Portuguese in saluting the large collection of fans behind the north goal, and then walked off the field and into the locker room ahead of them. The rest of A Seleção lingered, moving more slowly toward the sideline. Ramos held a match ball under his arm.

“I don't think so,” Silva said when asked if the Ronaldo issue will fester. “I think he's helping us today. He showed a great personality inside the dressing room, and he was fine. Of course, sometimes he might not be happy because everyone wants to play. But he helped us a lot in his role, and his attitude was great.

“Today, the manager chose 11, and the 11 had a great answer for this game. And we're very happy with the performance.”


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