World Cup·Analysis

Ronaldo's benching shows he needs to choose between his team and himself if he hopes to win World Cup

In the waning years of Cristiano Ronaldo's career, the rage he has used as a propellant is no longer working. It's turned to poison.

Portugal great forced to sit and watch Ramos score hat trick in win over Swiss

Cristiano Ronaldo sits on the bench to begin Portugal's game against Switzerland on Tuesday, the first time he hasn't started a World Cup game since 2006. (Francois Nel/Getty Images)

Chris Jones is in Qatar covering the men's World Cup for CBC Sports.

Everyone has an engine, and we all have a choice of fuels. In the waning years of Cristiano Ronaldo's career, as in his youth, as in his middle age, he's decided to be driven by rage. But for the first time in his life, it's no longer working as a propellant. It's turned to poison.

On Tuesday night at Lusail Stadium, the conversation before, during, and after Portugal's Round of 16 matchup against Switzerland revolved around a 37-year-old substitute: The great Ronaldo had been benched.

In a tournament that has not been short of narrative, Gonçalo Ramos, the 21-year-old who started in Ronaldo's place, opened Portuguese accounts with a rocket in the 17th minute. In his first try, he had done something Ronaldo never has: score in a World Cup knockout game.

The Portuguese cruised from there, winning 6-1 to earn a place in the quarter-final against Morocco, shock victors in a shootout over Spain earlier in the evening.

In the 73rd minute, Ramos, who'd scored twice more by then, came off, and Ronaldo came on. That moment felt like a thousand concessions to everyone and everything at once.

Ronaldo, left, subbed in for Goncalo Ramos, right, in the second half after the 21-year-old scored three goals in Portugal's 6-1 win. (Alessandra Tarantino/Associated Press)

Fernando Santos, Portugal's weary-looking head coach, had told reporters — and so, too, Ronaldo — that his captain's behaviour during the team's final group-stage game last Friday had been unacceptable.

Ronaldo had been taken off 65 minutes into Portugal's 2-1 loss to South Korea. One of his anxious opponents asked him to hurry off the pitch, and Ronaldo told him to "shut up." Next, he belittled his coach.

Santos returned the favour, telling reporters, "I really didn't like it." He added that he hadn't decided whether Ronaldo would be captain for the Switzerland game or even start, fuelling worldwide speculation.

A Portuguese newspaper asked readers whether Ronaldo should be in the lineup, and 70 per cent of the respondents said no. Two hours before the opening whistle, Santos revealed that he'd sided with the majority. Ronaldo had started each of Portugal's previous 18 World Cup matches, a streak that began in 2006 when he was 21, the same age as Ramos today.

After the decisive win, Santos claimed that his decision had been tactical, not disciplinary. 

"There is no problem with the captain of the national team," he said. "We've been friends for many years. He set the example of a captain."

It was left unclear whether Ronaldo shared his coach's opinion. He did not speak to reporters after and was among the first Portuguese players to leave the stadium for the bus.

In soccer, the division between starter and substitute is stark. The 11 Portuguese honoured with caps came out to warm up first and separately. After a few minutes, Ronaldo appeared with the also-rans to complete their less ambitious exercises.

Then, during the anthem, he put on a smile and sang along. When his face showed up on the big screens around the stadium — there were hundreds of cameras pointed at the Portuguese bench rather than the team on the field — more than 83,000 fans roared. 

In the second half, the crowd began chanting "Ronaldo!" The loudest cheer of the night came when its demands were finally met.

Ronaldo, left, and Lionel Messi during a UEFA Champions League game in 2020. A matchup between the two in the World Cup final would be a soccer fan's dream. (David Ramos/Getty Images)

More and more, soccer fans align themselves with players rather than teams, defining themselves and each other by their affections. Lionel Messi, Ronaldo's career-long foil, is one locus of loyalty. Brazil's Neymar and Kylian Mbappé of France are two more.

None of them command attention quite like Ronaldo.

Shortly after he'd arrived in Qatar, he was released by Manchester United for his petulant behaviour. Two days later, he answered his critics by netting a penalty in Portugal's dramatic opening win over Ghana, becoming the first man to score in five World Cups.

In Portugal's next game, a 2-0 win over Uruguay, he tried to claim a goal by Bruno Fernandes for himself, celebrating as though he'd scored with a glancing header. Replays showed he did not.

Then came the South Korea game, and finally Tuesday's cataclysmic benching.

"Cristiano is doing his job," Fernandes said after. "He's doing his part. He's happy with the result, because the goal for everyone is to go as far as possible."

Because of the efforts of others, the dream of a Messi-versus-Ronaldo final remains alive. If they somehow manage it in their presumed last World Cups, the global television audience would be in the billions. It would be the moon landing, multiplied. It would be the first human on Mars.

Before any of that happens, however, Ronaldo has some decisions to make.

He needs to choose between his team and himself. He needs to choose between his hope and his pride. He needs to choose between his future and his past.

He needs to choose to be fuelled by love.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Chris Jones

Senior Contributor

Chris Jones is a journalist and screenwriter who began his career covering baseball and boxing for the National Post. He later joined Esquire magazine, where he won two National Magazine Awards for his feature writing. His work has also appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, ESPN The Magazine (RIP), and WIRED, and he is the author of the book, The Eye Test: A Case for Human Creativity in the Age of Analytics. Follow him on Twitter at @EnswellJones

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