LUSAIL – Cristiano Ronaldo was a solitary figure as he walked off the field following a World Cup match in which he was not the center of attention.
He’d come off the bench in a 6-1 victory over Switzerland on Tuesday that moved Portugal into the quarterfinals. Ronaldo's 21-year-old replacement scored a hat trick in the win — a performance sure to raise questions over Ronaldo's future with his national team.
Ronaldo congratulated Gonçalo Ramos at midfield at the end of the game, then walked toward the Portugal section of fans and briefly clapped in their direction.
But as the rest of the squad had their moment of fan appreciation, Ronaldo left his teammates behind and walked off alone through the tunnel.
Ronaldo breezed through the post-match interview area with a huge grin on his face, only responding to one question: Was he happy?
“Of course, of course,” the superstar grinned. “Portugal won.”
Fernando Santos expressed frustration with his 37-year-old star the day before he dropped Ronaldo from the starting lineup.
Santos said the decision was tactical and not disciplinary, but he'd acknowledged Monday he was bothered by Ronaldo's poor attitude after he pulled him late in a 2-1 loss to South Korea in the final game of group play.
“I think those issues have been solved. I said that in my last press conference and I repeat myself: This is something which is finished, solved," Santos said. "I have a very close relationship with (Ronaldo). I have known him since he was 19 years old in sporting.
“I think Ronaldo and I never misinterpret the human and personal aspect with that of manager and player, and what we need to do during the match,” the coach added. “That is what we will do. I will always consider he is a very important player to have in the team.”
Santos instead started Ramos, a little-known forward who made his international debut three weeks ago. Ramos' first career start for his national team came as Ronaldo’s replacement and he scored on just his fourth touch of the game in the 17th minute to give Portugal a 1-0 lead.
Santos added goals in the 51st — a goal Ronaldo celebrated as he warmed up on the sidelines with the rest of the substitutes — and again in the 67th.
Bruno Fernandes, who also played with Ronaldo at Manchester United, was the only member of the Portugal squad to indicate Ronaldo wasn't pleased with being benched. Fernandes seemed prepared for the controversy surrounding Ronaldo and stood firm in defending him as a Portugal team representative tried multiple times to pull Fernandes away.
“We won the first two games with Cristiano in the first 11, and it could be that if Cristiano played, he could score three goals and no one would be speaking about Cristiano being on the bench,” Fernandes said. "Cristiano is doing his job, he's doing his part, he's happy with the result because the goal for everyone is to go as far as possible.
“I don't think people should be talking about Cristiano and why he's not playing, because when Cristiano plays and the team wins, no one talks about that,” Fernandes continued. “When Cristiano plays and the team loses, everyone talks.”
Fernandes called Ronaldo “the most famous player in the world. No one is more famous than Cristiano in sports, not in football, in sports.” But when Fernandes was asked about Ramos' reaction to getting the start, he defensively turned the question toward Ronaldo.
“Do you think anyone likes to be on the bench?" Fernandes said. “I don't think Cristiano would be happy. If the manager put me on the bench in the next game, I would be angry.”
The match marked the first time Ronaldo didn’t lead his teammates onto the field as the captain in Qatar, with Pepe taking the armband. The 39-year-old defender then scored Portugal's second goal, with Ronaldo running off the bench to hug the veteran near one of the corners.
By the time Portugal had taken a 4-1 lead, the crowd at Lusail Stadium was loudly chanting “Ronaldo! Ronaldo!” for the star to enter the game. The cheers then turned to boos directed at Santos for ignoring the pleas.
Ronaldo, wearing a yellow substitute bib in the dugout, was expressionless as the crowd called for him. When he was finally sent onto the field in the 72nd, the crowd erupted. Pepe wrapped the captain's armband on Ronaldo's bicep before Ronaldo jogged onto the field.
This is expected to be Ronaldo's final World Cup.
Ramos, who has 21 goals this season for Portuguese club Benfica, made his debut for Portugal last month in a warmup game against Nigeria and scored his first international goal. He replaced Ronaldo late in the opening World Cup match against Ghana, and again against Uruguay.
Ronaldo opened the tournament with a goal against Ghana to become the first player to score in five different World Cups. But he was ineffective in Portugal’s final two games of group play and has been shadowed by distractions since arriving in Qatar.
Ronaldo cut ties with Manchester United before Portugal's first game, and he's reportedly being wooed by a Saudi Arabian team with the promise of an exorbitant paycheck. And, a poll in Portugal showed that fans in his home country wanted the superstar dropped from the lineup.
It’s not unprecedented for Ronaldo to get less playing time, because the aging superstar has faded of late. He barely played in the Premier League for United through the first half of the season, and Santos dropped him from the Portugal lineup for a Nations League game against Spain in March.
With Ronaldo, Portugal has advanced to the round of 16 of the World Cup in four of his five tournaments, but he’s never played in a final at the tournament. Portugal in 2006 lost to France in the semifinals — the deepest Ronaldo has ever reached at the World Cup.
Although he’s scored in five tournaments, he has only eight goals in 20 World Cup matches. His 118 goals in international play is a world record for men, but Ronaldo has never scored in the knockout stage of the World Cup.
Lionel Messi, Ronaldo’s greatest rival over the years, has scored three goals so far in this World Cup and helped Argentina reach the quarterfinals. Messi has nine career World Cup goals, and like Ronaldo, has never won the tournament.
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