It’s been a rough week for Cristiano Ronaldo and not just because of the nasty black eye he suffered after his clash with Czech goalkeeper Tomas Vaclik.
Just weeks away from the World Cup, Portugal’s biggest star has been increasingly criticized for his underperformance, with many openly questioning whether the team would be better off without him.
In Portugal, it is no longer taboo to suggest that this talismanic figure, one of the greatest footballers to ever take to the field, should step aside and let others live their moment.
Cristiano Ronaldo regrets one of his wasted chances when Portugal was beaten 1-0 by Spain
The 37-year-old was again heavily criticized after Portugal ruined a place in the Nations League final
He had a nasty black eye after a collision with Czech goalkeeper Tomas Vaclik
Ronaldo was left bloodied and bruised from the collision in the 13th minute of the Nations League match
The prominent sports daily a bola had a front page on Monday that read ‘Less Ronaldo, more Portugal’, arguing that his lack of regular playing time at Manchester United this season invalidated his automatic right to a place in the national team.
Nevertheless, Fernando Santos still started the 37-year-old’s crucial Nations League game against Spain on Tuesday evening. Portugal lost 1-0 and only needed a point to reach the final and the criticism continued.
Ronaldo’s performance in Braga can be described as out of sync.
The inevitable YouTube compilations of every touch showed passes that went astray or just a frustrating fraction behind their intended target, shots high over the bar and movement a fraction of a second too slow.
It led to allegations of favoritism on Portuguese TV, with RTP3 pundit Tiago Fernandes saying: “Everyone can see that it is Ronaldo who decides how many minutes he plays – you don’t have to be smart to see that.”
That comment sparked a heated debate over whether Santos, whose eight years in charge of Portugal coincided with Ronaldo’s peak, was too captivated by the superstar.
Maybe Fernandes has a point. Ronaldo starts the vast majority of Portuguese games, as he has for about 15 years.
He leads the charge and is the captain, although on Tuesday evening he tossed the armband in a flurry of pique after the late winner Alvaro Morata. It’s not the first time he’s done that either.
But when Ronaldo wants to sit out a game, his wish is usually granted. That happened in June, when Portugal played off to Switzerland in the Nations League. In his absence, they lost 1-0.
And overall, despite his advancing years, Ronaldo delivers the goods. Maybe not as prolific as three or four years ago, but he still offers goals and assists.
Ronaldo threw away the captain’s armband after Tuesday night’s defeat in Braga
Leading Portuguese sports newspaper A Bola called for ‘Less Ronaldo, more Portugal this week’
For example, in the other game against Switzerland in June, he scored twice and created another in a 4-0 defeat. At the European Championship last summer, he scored five goals in the group stage.
It could also be argued that when you have played 191 matches for your country – and scored 117 goals – you have the right to have a say in which matches you sit out.
Ronaldo could have left the national team at any time after Portugal won Euro 2016. During that tournament, it sometimes seemed as if he single-handedly dragged them to victory.
But he keeps popping up, no doubt motivated by duty, but also by the chance to break more records.
He is already the best goalscorer of all time in international football and is approaching the record for most international appearances.
Ronaldo inspired Portugal to win Euro 2016 in France
Portugal coach Fernando Santos, in office since 2014, is accused of favouritism
That’s a controversial area. FIFA recognizes Kuwait’s Bader Al-Mutawa as the record holder in 196 games, meaning Ronaldo should surpass him in the coming months.
But the Rec.Sport.Soccer Statistics Foundation (RSSSF) says Malaysian Soh Chin Ann is in the lead with 219 caps, but these include games in the Olympics, which are not recognized by FIFA.
It is possible that Ronaldo will continue to play long enough to resolve this argument beyond any doubt. He said last week that he plans to play at Euro 2024, aged 39, and since Santos has a contract until that tournament, he will likely still be chosen.
When asked about Ronaldo’s poor performance against Spain, Santos replied: “What interests me is how the team played. Ronaldo had three or four chances. Two very good ones, which he usually scores. He didn’t score, it’s football.’
They didn’t sound like the words of a man about to drop his biggest name, but if Santos really values the team as a collective, he should at least consider it.
Ronaldo has gotten used to warming up the bench for Manchester United this season
Ultimately, Portugal will have to look to the future and give more starting chances to players like Andre Silva, or perhaps use Rafael Leao or Diogo Jota in Ronaldo’s position rather than on the wing.
It would be the ideal time to make the switch as Santos has the smokescreen of Erik ten Hag’s decision to bench Ronaldo at United.
Ronaldo has only started one of United’s six Premier League games so far this season and has had to make do with cameos falling late on the bench in UEFA Europa League matches and outings.
The man who was by far United’s top scorer last season with 24, now has to scramble for penalties against Sheriff Tiraspol.
Erik ten Hag has only started in one Premier League match with Ronaldo this season
Ronaldo’s only goal of the season so far came from the penalty spot against Sheriff Tiraspol
Failing to secure his desired departure from Old Trafford over the summer, this appears to be Ronaldo’s fate until the World Cup kicks off.
Marcus Rashford and United’s other attackers are much better in form and more attuned to the way Ten Hag wants to play.
It’s open to debate how much of Ronaldo’s rustiness against Spain is due to a lack of playing time and how much comes down to the simple fact that he is now 37.
But Santos, by starting Ronaldo in both games this week, has now missed his chance to get an alternative plan for the World Cup.
You would certainly put good money in for Ronaldo in charge for his country if they take on Ghana on November 24 at Stadium 974 in Doha.
There will come a time when Portugal will have to face life without him. Many now believe that day has already arrived…but not those who will make the decisions.