World Cup: Ronaldo never wanted to leave Portugal, insists coach Santos
DOHA – Even if he was not playing, the conversation surrounding the Portuguese camp at the Qatar World Cup was always going to be about Cristiano Ronaldo.
Coach Fernando Santos had put off the decision for years, but eventually rolled the dice – and benched his star striker and captain for their last-16 clash against Switzerland on Tuesday.
The gamble paid off handsomely as his replacement Goncalo Ramos struck a hat-trick in a 6-1 thrashing of the Swiss to set up a quarter-final showdown with Morocco on Saturday.
Ronaldo had started every World Cup game for Portugal since missing a group match against Mexico in 2006 before he was benched on Tuesday.
It has been hard for Santos to abandon the 37-year-old. With Portugal already qualified for the knockouts, Ronaldo still started against South Korea in their final group match.
When he was substituted in the second half he showed frustration with Santos, who was unhappy and spoke out against Ronaldo’s behaviour. The coach later insisted the decision to bench his talisman against the Swiss was for “strategic” rather than disciplinary reasons.
But his call inevitably carried fallout.
Portuguese newspaper Record reported that Ronaldo – who has just a penalty goal in Qatar – threatened to leave the World Cup squad, before changing his mind. That claim was denied by the Portuguese federation on Thursday.
On Friday, bombarded by questions about Ronaldo rather than Morocco at his press conference, Santos reiterated his stand that all was well with his skipper.
“There was a conversation with Ronaldo, it happened on the day of the (Switzerland) game, after lunch,” he said.
“I explained to him the reasons why he wasn’t going to play. I said that I didn’t count on him at the beginning, but that he would be very important during the match, that he could change the game in the second half.
“Cristiano was not satisfied, it’s obvious, he always played in the starting line-up. It’s normal that he wasn’t satisfied. He didn’t accept it simply, but it was a calm conversation. He never told me or anyone else he wanted to leave the team.
“It’s time we stop this conversation.”
The difficulty in Santos’ decision to drop Ronaldo was largely because of the potential outcry, nourished by the man himself, rather than a lack of alternatives or fear the team would struggle in his absence.
On the pitch, Portugal have plenty of impressive contenders for Ronaldo’s throne, from Ramos, to AC Milan’s Rafael Leao and Atletico Madrid’s Joao Felix.
Santos has until now felt obliged to start Portugal’s greatest-ever player, a five-time Ballon d’Or winner and record men’s international goalscorer.
The reliance on Ronaldo – or at least an unwillingness to be the man who ousted him – has long starved Portugal of dynamism in attack, as all efforts go towards feeding him, and doing the defensive running that he cannot manage.
“That is what was intended, what we wanted,” beamed Santos after the demolition of Switzerland. “We wanted a team that played with a lot of fluidity, we played very well.”
It was a door to another world for Portugal, who won Euro 2016 through solidity and defensive grit rather than flair and creativity.
For Santos to show openness to this kind of flexibility after eight years in charge was a surprise, and he could very well stick to a similar line-up against Morocco – which means that Ronaldo could, again, be dropped for Ramos.
For years Santos has brushed off criticism of Portugal’s football as dull and uninspiring, preferring to focus on the results.
But after making the daring changes against Switzerland, both in terms of his line-up and the performance, he may have found the right formula, at the right time.
A small part of his press conference was reserved for Morocco, almost as if it was only right for the Africans to take a back seat amid the Ronaldo circus.
“Morocco is very strong, they only conceded one goal. We can’t think it’s going to be easy, because it won’t,” Santos said.
“The players know the quality of the opponent and they have to arrive on the field without fear and with confidence. When we don’t have the ball, we have to go looking for it, be intense... If we continue to improve as we have improved, I believe that Portugal will win.” - AFP