It’s hard to imagine a country having a more feted footballer, a more celebrated and adored hero, someone who means so much to such a high percentage of the population, than Cristiano Ronaldo in Portugal.
No one compares in England — not Bobby Charlton, not the man who lifted the World Cup, Bobby Moore, certainly not Wayne Rooney either despite the records he broke. Perhaps Diego Maradona, who is held in greater regard than Lionel Messi in Argentina? But a difference in Portugal is that, other than 1966 when a Eusebio-inspired team finished third, they had only ever qualified for one World Cup before 2002.
Ronaldo has not only lifted the team to greater heights than many older Portugal supporters will ever have dreamed of, winning Euro 2016, but he has also broken individual records that may not be beaten for decades to come. He’s made more international appearances (191) than any European player ever. He’s scored more international goals (117) and Champions League goals (141) than any player ever. He’s won five Ballons d’Or, five Champions Leagues, seven domestic league titles and is one of the greatest players in the history of the game. For a nation of just 10 million people, he is essentially a demigod.
Now, however, Ronaldo has, in club football least, been reduced to a mortal. After the mutual termination of his contract at Manchester United, Ronaldo, aged 37, begins what is likely to be his final World Cup as a free agent. That is not to say Ronaldo fascinates the world any less. At an open training session on Wednesday evening, where media were allowed to observe, film and photograph the opening 15 minutes, one Chinese cameraman turned up in a Ronaldo jersey. Ronaldo gave the photographers their shot, sprinting onto the field, leaping into the air, and dispatching a trademark header into an empty goal.
Yet time passes and Ronaldo’s superpowers begin to wane, his adulation isn’t quite taken for granted in 2022. Just as in Manchester and England, a debate about whether Ronaldo should still be playing every minute for Portugal is being had. It’s a debate that was unthinkable just a couple of years ago, but, aged 37, there are things Ronaldo can no longer do, despite his remarkable physical and fitness. The magic finally seems to be fading.
Eight goalless appearances in his last nine Portugal caps have seen, probably for the first time, Portuguese media openly criticise Ronaldo. They have asked questions of manager Fernando Santos, such as, “Are you forced to pick him in your team?” Again, that was never an issue when he was unquestionably the first name on the team sheet. Right now he’s a guy who isn’t playing club football. And that interview hasn’t helped.
This week in Doha, the Portuguese national team has indulged in the soap opera surrounding Ronaldo. On Wednesday, at the pre-match press conference before Portugal’s opening fixture against Ghana, his former club team-mate Bruno Fernandes took the questions.
Fernandes was asked a number of times about the impact of Ronaldo’s exit from United, which culminated in Santos at one point reclining his chair, rolling his eyes and placing his hand over his face in exasperated fashion.
Fernandes, who has captained Manchester United this season, said: “Cris hasn’t discussed it with me. It’s his decision — a personal decision.
‘I don’t feel uncomfortable. I don’t have to pick a side. It is a privilege to play for the international team with Cristiano Ronaldo. It is a privilege to play for Manchester United. Cristiano has always been an inspiration to me and it was a dream come true playing with him but nothing lasts forever. It was good while it lasted. Now he has made a decision with his life. Every decision has to be respected, whether we agree or not. We know it might be difficult to make some decisions but these decisions have to be for the wellness of ourselves and our families.”