Cristiano Ronaldo 'crucial' to Portugal, insists Santos, but is he still the main man?

Qatar 2022 will be Ronaldo's fifth World Cup but the first in which the totemic forward is struggling in club football

Cristiano Ronaldo will appear at a fifth World Cup finals if he represents Portugal at Qatar 2022. AFP
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You have to go deep back into the last century for a World Cup that began without suspense building around a Ronaldo. In 1994, there were two of them. Brazil, who went on to lift the trophy, called up a defender by that name at the last minute, a replacement for late injury. They also picked a precocious young striker in their squad, a 17-year-old with a goofy grin then known as Ronaldinho.

That junior Ronaldo would rise fast, a Ballon d’Or holder by the time of the France World Cup in 1998, where he led Brazil’s attack until, on the day of the final, he suffered sudden convulsions, and was initially left out of the line-up. The decision was then reversed. Ronaldo "Fenomeno" as he was also known, had an anonymous game in the 3-0 defeat by France, an episode put behind him when, despite a long period of injury leading up to the 2002 tournament he was top scorer in Brazil’s triumph in South Korea and Japan.

There is still some argument, mainly from South America about which of the two great Ronaldos, both of legends at Real Madrid, is the greater, and part of the case in favour of Brazil’s Ronaldo, ahead of Portugal’s are the fact of his two World Cup gold medals. Brazil’s Ronaldo was a non-playing substitute in 1994, but the hero eight years later. But by 2006, he would be thoroughly upstaged by his namesake, or CR7, the great record-breaker of 21st century football.

Come November, this Ronaldo will start his fifth World Cup, and there is suspense: Will he be in form? Will he justify his place in Portugal’s starting XI? He will be three months from his 38th birthday, so it is reasonable to assume it will be his last. If he takes it as far as a semi-final, he would match his best showing on the sport’s ultimate stage; if he performs as bravely as the 21-year-old, dynamic CR7 did in Munich in that semi, a narrow defeat to France, his country and a watching world will be reminded that this is a footballer who, if appears the supreme individualist at times, it is because he knows he can lift teams all on his own.

And if Ronaldo starts the Qatar tournament with the sort of emphatic display that ignited the 2018 World Cup, when on its opening weekend he struck a hat-trick against Spain, his Portugal head coach, Fernando Santos will hardly need to stress, as Santos did ahead of this week’s penultimate gathering of his squad before the big event, for Uefa Nations League fixtures, that “nobody should doubt that Cristiano Ronaldo remains crucial for the national team.”

Portugal win Euro 2016

Santos was surveying Ronaldo’s awkward career crossroads, a situation at Manchester United that leaves Ronaldo as dissatisfied with his club role as any time during almost two decades of plotting his life around Portugal’s international competitions. It’s a timeline that includes a losing final in one European Championship, in 2004, and a triumph in that competition, in 2016, when he went off injured in the first half of the victory over France in Paris but animated, almost as if he were Santos’s co-manager, his teammates from the touchline. It’s an odyssey that sent to him to his second World Cup, in South Africa in 2010, as the most expensive footballer in the history of the sport, thanks to his move from Manchester United to Real Madrid. In the summer of his fourth World Cup, he was about to become the only player to have fetched a second fee of over €100m, the cost to Juventus of his transfer from Madrid.

Contrast that with the well-chronicled frustrations of the summer of 2022, when Ronaldo made it plain he wanted to terminate his second spell with Manchester United, and find an employer who could provide a Champions League platform. There were none forthcoming, or no club that matched his sense of his own status or would meet his financial expectations. For the first time in a decade and a half, Portugal’s superstar is a substitute for his club. He goes into this week’s Uefa Nations League matches having scored just one goal this season, and none from open play in club football since April.

Cristiano Ronaldo's individual records

“I’m not worried,” insists Santos, “I’ve been monitoring. I pay attention, with him and all the players, to see how they are doing, whether or not they are playing, or due to play.”

In which case, he will be well on top of Bruno Fernandes’ leadership role and match-turning performances for United, the club that finds no regular place in its starting line-up for Ronaldo. Santos will have noted how much interest the major clubs who turned a deaf ear to Ronaldo’s eagerness to move in the summer showed in pursuing Bernardo Silva, the serial champion of Manchester City, or Joao Felix, the maturity prodigy of Atletico Madrid, in Pedro Neto, of Wolverhampton Wanderers, and in Rafael Leao, the AC Milan striker who claimed the title of Serie A’s Most Valuable Player last season.

Santos will be pleased at Diogo Jota’s recovery from injury and clear importance to Liverpool’s attacking zest. All that talent means Portugal can pick a de luxe front five and have brilliance in reserve even without Ronaldo, their all-time leading scorer and captain. And at the moment, his form and level of match-sharpness is way behind that of his gifted compatriots.

Updated: September 28, 2022, 8:49 AM