DOHA, Qatar – After the final whistle, after Morocco beat Portugal 1-0 on Saturday to become the first African country in World Cup history to reach the semi-finals, Cristiano Ronaldo said lowered his head and started the long walk towards the tunnel. at the Al Thumama stadium.
Two Moroccan players came to say goodbye to them and Ronaldo, the Portuguese superstar in the twilight of his career, briefly obeyed but barely broke his rhythm. As Morocco and its fans celebrated with joy and the Portuguese players were in shock, Ronaldo, 37, left what he believes could be his last World Cup.
In the tunnel, TV cameras showed Ronaldo – one of the most decorated players to never win a World Cup and who had been reduced to a substitute player in recent times – wiping tears from his eyes. If that was indeed the case for one of the greatest players of all time, it ended in disappointment for him and a team that some believe could have made a deeper run in the tournament.
“If we take two people who were the most upset with the game, maybe it was Cristiano Ronaldo and myself,” Portugal coach Fernando Santos said through an interpreter.
This World Cup was supposed to be a last hurrah on this stage for veteran stars like Ronaldo, Argentina’s Lionel Messi and Croatia’s Luka Modric. But only one team can win the title, and Messi and Modric remain important contributors to their squads, still alive in the tournament. But recently, Ronaldo, the team captain, ended up watching more than he played.
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Benched in knockout matches for Santos, five-time Ballon d’Or winner Ronaldo didn’t play like the dazzling player who had scored 118 times in 196 career appearances for his national team. With a penalty against Ghana in the group stage, Ronaldo became the first male player in history to score in five World Cups.
But that goal was Ronaldo’s only one in this tournament and possibly the last of his World Cup career. In all, he scored eight goals in 22 World Cup games, the fifth most all time. His best World Cup result was his first, in 2006, when he was 21 and Portugal finished fourth.
This World Cup has been much harder for Ronaldo. While in Qatar, he parted ways “by mutual agreement” with his club team Manchester United a week after criticizing management in an interview and accusing the club of betraying him.
In the first two games of the World Cup group stage, Ronaldo started and was taken off late for a substitute. But in a 2-1 loss to South Korea in Portugal’s third and final group stage game, Santos replaced Ronaldo much earlier, in the 65th minute. Ronaldo didn’t take this well, responding by raising a finger to his lips as if motioning to be quiet.
In the next game, a Round of 16 against Switzerland, Santos benched Ronaldo and explained that it was because he was frustrated with his player’s attitude in the previous match. Santos later said that Ronaldo was unhappy when told he was benched but never threatened to quit the team.
It didn’t help Ronaldo’s cause that his replacement against Switzerland, 21-year-old Gonçalo Ramos, dazzled with a hat trick and led Portugal to a 6-1 victory. So against Morocco, Santos stuck to what was working and put Ronaldo back on the bench as Ramos started.
After Saturday’s loss, Santos said he had no regrets. He continued: “They are a team that played very well against Switzerland. Cristiano is a great player and he came when we thought it was necessary.
Facing the Moroccan defense, Ramos was no longer impressed and was replaced by Rafael Leão in the 69th minute. Ronaldo entered the quarter-final game in the 51st minute and tried to contribute with runs, passes or shots – Moroccan goalkeeper Yassine Bounou, known as Bono, stopped one in the first minute stoppage time – but he mostly looked like an aging player against a big defense.
“I don’t think what happened to Cristiano Ronaldo and all the criticism he faced had any impact on today’s game,” said Santos, who criticized the many missed chances crew. “We have always been a very close-knit team.
When asked if this was Ronaldo’s last game for Portugal, defender Pepe, 39, a longtime teammate, said ‘now is not the time’ to discuss it . (Ronaldo said he plans to play at least the 2024 European Championship before retiring from the national team.)
Pepe continued: “This is an important moment for us. It’s important to talk about Portugal and we’re sad not to win and not make our fans happy. We have to look at what we have done well and badly.