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Portugal’s next step to be without Ronaldo

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DOHA: Cristiano Ronaldo is staying back in Qatar for now. The 37-year-old was one of 10 members of the Portuguese squad that didn’t opt to go back with the side to Lisbon after their quarter-final exit at the hands of Morocco at the World Cup in Qatar. It was finally on Sunday evening, almost 22 hours after it all happened at the Al Thumama Stadium — the 1-0 loss having left him with another failed attempt at winning the trophy that has eluded him, that Ronaldo finally broke his silence in an Instagram post that hinted he was calling it a day.

“Winning a World Cup for Portugal was the biggest and most ambitious dream of my career,’ he wrote. ”Fortunately I won many titles of international dimension, including with Portugal, but putting the country’s name on the highest foot in the world was my biggest dream. I fought for it. I fought hard for this dream. In the five appearances I scored in World Cups over 16 years, always by the side of great players and supported by millions of Portuguese, I gave my all. Left it all out on the field. I never turned my face to the fight and I never gave up on that dream.

“Sadly, yesterday the dream ended. It’s not worth reacting in the heat of the moment. I just want you all to know that much has been said, much has been written, much has been speculated, but my dedication to Portugal has not changed for a moment. I was always one fighting for the objective of all and I would never turn my back on my colleagues and my country. Not much more to say for now. Thank you Portugal. Thank you Qatar. The dream was nice while it lasted… Now, it’s to hoping that time will be a good advisor and allow each one to draw their own conclusions.”

Ronaldo had skipped walking through the mixed zone for any interaction with reporters who waited for him to arrive, for that one soundbyte on what lies ahead for him. “Cristiano Ronaldo will not be coming here and the Portugal team bus has already left the stadium,” a FIFA official informed reporters on Saturday night. There would be no last glimpse of the man whose mere presence in the mixed zones drags every soul in the hall towards him.

His presence on the pitch, though, isn’t the same. Here, just like Portugal’s last-16 game against Switzerland, Ronaldo was on the bench and was summoned with 40 minutes of the game to be played to help his side find a way back after Youssef En-Nesyri had scored with a Ronaldo-like header to give Morocco the lead.

Ronaldo tried, Portugal tried but the leveller never came. Benched and subsequently shelved out by Manchester United, it’s been a tumultuous World Cup for Ronaldo. A free agent, the World Cup was Ronaldo’s chance to show he still belongs at the elite level. But he never had his moment here in Qatar. He did become the first player to score in five different Worid Cups but that came from a penalty in Portugal’s opening game and will only be remembered as a footnote once the tournament ends, perhaps with his longtime rival Lionel Messi winning the title which too has eluded him.

Ronaldo showed a shade of his old speed late on against Morocco, bursting clear past the defence only to see his snapshot blocked by the impregnable Yassine Bounou. It brought an emotional outburst from Moroccan coach Walid Regragui, who later said he feared that Ronaldo would score after he had come on. It was Ronaldo, though, who was in tears at the end. His stature, though, was not lost on Moroccans — two of their players came to console him before joining their team-mates in wild celebrations.

Ronaldo then made the long walk immediately, tears now flowing more than ever, cameras in the dugout capturing every moment of his sorrow. This wasn’t the end he’d envisaged. But whether he decides to play on or not — he would be 41 by the time the next World Cup comes along, his end would only mark a new era for Portugal. And with the exceptional talents of Joao Felix, Bruno Fernandes and Bernardo Silva as well as Goncalo Ramos — who was anonymous here but hit a hat-trick in the 6-1 romp over the Swiss as Ronaldo’s replacement — Portugal can look forward to the future with great hope.

Coach Fernando Santos said he had no regrets about not starting with Ronaldo, without whom Portugal put up one of the performances of the tournament against the Swiss, although he did say that both he and Ronaldo were the saddest people in the dressing room. On the eve of the game, Santos had identified Morocco’s low block as the area where the game would be decided. Yet, he had no idea how to breach it.

There were angry protests from veteran defender Pepe and Fernandes afterwards about having an Argentine referee for the game given that Argentina had reached the quarter-finals a day earlier. “I can say they will give the title to Argentina,” fumed Pepe. Portugal felt they were denied a penalty after En Nesyri’s goal when Fernandes was fouled. “We knew we were going to be playing against more than the Moroccan team,” said Fernandes.

More talk, however, was about the future. “We had the quality to go further, and the effort and commitment of the team deserved more,” said Fernandes. “We are aware of what we did in this tournament and what we could have done. Now it’s time to go home, be with our families, recover mentally. This team will be back and ready to go again. We want to represent our country.”

Defender Ruben Dias echoed Fernandes’ thoughts. “We gave everything here, unfortunately we weren’t better today,” said Dias “But we’ll take this experience on board and we are aware that we have a generation full of talent, with a lot of quality and a lot to give.”

Published in Dawn, December 12th, 2022


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