By Michael Graham
As Portugal rampaged against a decent enough Swiss side at the World Cup without Cristiano Ronaldo, the narrative given was that football was sharing an epiphany. The reality, though, was that it was simply confirming what we’ve all known for some time.
The inconvenient truth, at least for him, is that Ronaldo stopped carrying Portugal a long time ago.
There doesn’t have to be any drama in that either. Ronaldo is 37 years old and plays for a great footballing nation. Of course he is no longer the core of their team. It’s not new information or something that everyone didn’t already know. The only thing that has really changed is that Fernando Santos has decided he would rather win a World Cup than not upset Ronaldo.
Because, let’s face it, Portugal didn’t have the slightest hope of winning a first World Cup in Qatar with Ronaldo’s ego constantly sucking up the joy and freedom of his own football like some kind of insatiable Dementor.
The insinuation is that it was his reaction to the substitution against South Korea that prompted Santos to leave Ronaldo and it could well be the case. However, it was the opening goal debacle against Uruguay that really turned the spotlight on what needed to be done.
It was then that Ronaldo inadvertently played his hand. He didn’t score. He’s tried every ab-popping celebration in the book to try and convince everyone he did, but he didn’t and the technology has proven it. Even then he was unable to accept it and took his quest to essentially steal a goal from a teammate all the way to FIFA.
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The fact that Portugal won was not enough for them. He couldn’t be happy for his friend and teammate. He couldn’t enjoy being just a part of it. He had to be it, and nothing else mattered.
Is it any wonder, then, that Portugal seem to play with freedom and joy in the 6-1 win against Switzerland that we have seldom seen from them? They were suddenly no longer slaves to a teammate’s ego. Suddenly they were the stars, not the companions, and the fervor with which they expressed it suggested that they had long been desperately seeking even a chance to prove it.
The intention here is not to accuse Ronaldo of anything or disparage him in any way. I’m not suggesting a scenario where he goes wild in the Portugal dressing room if people don’t walk past him reigning with an iron fist of terror. Sometimes, though, a presence is simply so gigantic that it naturally dominates. It’s okay when it offers too, but those days are gone.
It is impossible to imagine Portugal attacking with such pace and punch as they did against Switzerland when they played against Ronaldo. Indeed, at times in the first three World Cup matches, Ronaldo was barely involved until he smelled the goal.
There is nothing strictly wrong with that. All teams want to get the best out of their best players. The problem is that Ronaldo is no longer Portugal’s best player, and to treat him as such is a criminal waste of the talented masses they have.
The good news is that Portugal seems to have figured this out just in time. The night before, Brazil raised the bar for what it will take to win this World Cup with their glittering demolition of South Korea.
What Portugal did against Switzerland, which is not a face for anyone, was a performance on the same level as the Brazilians – and it is a level they cannot reach with Ronaldo in the squad.
I hope Ronaldo embraces the role he should have had a long time ago. He can have enormous influence off the bench and as a leader and icon in the dressing room. You wouldn’t put him on the spot to get into a tight semi-final or final against tired defenders and score a crucial goal. He can still have his moment.
It is clear that Portugal have finally accepted that those moments are now the best they have to offer on the world stage. The only question now is whether Ronaldo is also willing to accept it. Hopefully he will, because the reality is that, if he is to win a World Cup, he needs Portugal now much more than they need him.
This article was originally posted on 90min.com as Cristiano Ronaldo now needs Portugal much more than they need him.
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