Ronaldo’s role not enough as Portugal exit Qatar

Sportem
Sportem
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DOHA, Qatar — At the peak of his powers, it was Cristiano Ronaldo’s part-vibe, part-message.

His “calma, eu estou aqui” boast (“Relax, I am here.”) from 2012 with Real Madrid would naturally become a meme. And throughout the years, it usually worked out. It’s what he tried to channel when — six minutes into the second half of Sunday’s World Cup quarterfinal match against Morocco and with Portugal a goal down — coach Fernando Santos finally sent him on.

Even as the clock ticked away and the Moroccan roar grew louder at Al Thumama Stadium, even as Bruno Fernandes pulled his shirt in anger like he was about to Hulk-smash, even as Pepe waved his arms pleading with the referee, even as Joao Felix through his arms in the air, even as Portugal’s attacks descended into chaos, Ronaldo exuded an almost Zen-like calm.

The chance — whether to set up a teammate or to beat Moroccan goalkeeper Yassine Bounou — would come. It would flow his way and he would seize the moment. Except, when it did, just after the board lit up showing eight minutes of injury time, his first-time contact was crisp, but not angled. And his shot was smothered by Bounou, and Morocco ran out the clock to win 1-0.

For a man who has been the center of attention for the past twenty years, his final World Cup appearance was subdued. There was no screaming, no hysterics. There was, instead, a calm, quiet professionalism, the one which, once you strip off the hype, underpinned much of his career.

The game wound down amidst the carnage of injuries and substitutions. As Santos sent on more and more attacking players, his existing attackers had to retreat: Fernandes ended up at right-back, Bernardo Silva at holding midfielder. But it’s silly to even talk about formations in the final minutes of a World Cup knockout game when one team has the lead.

The script is familiar. Morocco retreated into a dense red mass enveloping Ronaldo, Ricardo Horta and Felix, with Azzedine Ounahi and Sofyan Amrabat, North Africa’s answer to Castor and Pollux (and soon just as mythical), doing everything from patrolling the edge of the box to cueing the press after every clearance.

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Craig Burley is full of praise for Morocco’s performance and resilience after they become the first African team to make it to a World Cup semifinal.

The game changes into another sport. One team tries to punch, will and scrape the ball through a thicket of humans into the net (if they’re luck, there’s a deflection or a referee’s whistle to help). The other prays that each clearance leads to a counterattack, often a solo run by a lone forward against a couple of defenders (one of them the 40-year-old Pepe).

Amidst all this was Ronaldo. The calm may have been outward — from high in the media tribune you can never be sure — maybe inside the dial was turned past 11. But to his teammates and to those watching he looked confident and ready. He had been here many times. With 196 international caps, nearly a thousand games at club level, finals, Ballons d’Or, league titles … he knew his teammates were looking to him even if his coach had not.

At least not at the start, not in this game, not in the previous game. But this was still his moment. All he had to do was wait for the door to open and walk through it. Except it never did. The final chance fell to Pepe — an uncoordinated header skimmed wide of the post — not to him. And, just like that, it was over.

The whistle went and he walked, gaze fixed ahead towards the center circle and the players tunnel, breaking stride just twice. Once, when Achraf Dari, who had come in place of the injured Morocco defender Romain Saiss, intercepted him to console him and put his arm around him, which Ronaldo greeted with a nod and a half-smile. And again when a pitch invader hurdled the perimeter and sprinted towards him, only to be bear-hugged by an alert security guard.

Ronaldo was swallowed up by the tunnel and was gone. Gone to ponder what might have been, had he played from the first minute. Gone to ponder how much longer he wants to make this game his life since, as anyone not living under a rock knows, he is now unattached at club level and free to join whatever club he wishes (and wishes to have him). In 1994, Cameroon’s Roger Milla scored his final World Cup goal at 42 years of age which is older than Ronaldo will be in 2026. So yeah, never say never.

But in the surprisingly chilly air of the Al Thumamah, it felt as if the curtain had come down on his World Cup career. Five World Cups, book-ended by Portugal’s best performances with him on board: the semifinals in 2006 and the quarterfinal now. Twenty-two appearances, eight goals scored, some regrets (none more so than the thigh injury which slowed him in 2014) and several big moments (like the penalty that sent Portugal past England and into the semifinal in 2006, following the famous “Rooney wink” and the heroic hat trick against Spain in 2018).

And, perhaps, the sense of loss that the greats always have about themselves: that with fewer injuries and better timing he might have done even more. It may be the final World Cup chapter, but we have yet to reach the end of the book. We’ll see him again, certainly at club level, probably with Portugal. But 2022 will go down as Ronaldo’s annus horribilis. Good thing 2023 is just three weeks away.

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