Fernando Santos’ decision to drop Cristiano Ronaldo took all the headlines before Portugal's Round of 16 tie against Switzerland in the Qatar World Cup on Tuesday night.
It was a big call, as it was the first time that Ronaldo had not started a match for Portugal in a major tournament since 2008. Critics had been calling for the five-time Ballon d’Or winner to be left out the starting line-up for a while, saying that he was impacting the team’s performances. His super-fans argued that he is still a great player and that he provides more of a goal threat than any of Portugal’s other strikers.
Portugal coach Santos was vindicated in the end, with Goncalo Ramos, Ronaldo’s replacement, scoring the first hat-trick of this year’s tournament. But how did events play out? How did the media, fans, and Ronaldo himself, react?
The photographer frenzy
Ahead of Portugal and Switzerland coming out the tunnel, two pens of photographers had assembled in each teams’ technical area. Just at the side of the pitch, this is usually a good spot to take photographs of the starting players as they line up to sing their national anthems.
But this time, most of the photographs were not trying to get a shot of Granit Xhaka, Xherdan Shaqiri, Joao Felix or Bruno Fernandes. In fact, most of them were facing the other direction. They had crammed in like sardines and were vying for the perfect angle to get a shot of one man: Ronaldo.
Gathered behind a rope and around a steward, some peered over shoulders, others held their cameras up high to get a clear shot, but they were all focused on the 37-year-old.
The euphoric sympathy
Much of the crowd had clearly come just to see Ronaldo. Understandably, these people were upset with Santos’ decision to drop the former Manchester United forward.
During the Portuguese national anthem, there was the usual subdued singing, with half the neutrals listening in passively. But the stadium came to life when Ronaldo’s face appeared on the big screen, as the crowd showed its support with a massive cheer. His face showed up on the big screen several times as he sat on the bench, with the fans repeatedly cheering each sighting of their man.
When he was warming up, it was like a pantomime. The crowd cheered every time he stretched a different muscle. Chants of “Ronaldo, Ronaldo” reverberated round the stadium. When it was decided that Ronaldo would not come on in this instance, Santos’ face came up on the big screen and boos rang out around the ground.
The wasteful cameo
After a long wait the fans got what they wanted in the 73rd minute. When it became clear that Ronaldo was coming on, the stadium erupted in anticipation. Despite the fact that they were winning the game 5-1, and that Ramos had scored a hat-trick, it was the biggest cheer of the day. Ronaldo had a bit of a smile on his face too. Pepe put the armband on him and he walked onto the field for his 195th cap, with the crowd showing its appreciation again.
Two minutes later the big moment came: Portugal had a free-kick on the edge of the box. It was perfect Ronaldo territory. He placed the ball on the ground, took his long strides back, stood with his legs apart and puffed his cheeks as he exhaled. The tension rose as he stood there. But the shot was underwhelming, cannoning off the wall at waist height.
A few minutes later, William Carvalho clipped the ball to Ronaldo, putting him through on goal. But Ronaldo timed his run terribly and was yards offside. He continued, though, for some reason, and strode forward before lashing the ball home with a left-footed shot. The fans screamed when the ball hit the back of the net and booed loudly when it was called offside.
He nearly had another chance, when a ball was flicked over the top to him inside the box, but the 37-year-old was not quick enough and the defender kicked it off him and it went out of play.
The swift exit
You would think that at the end of the match, Ronaldo would have been happy for his team-mates and would have joined in the celebrations with them. But he did not.
It seemed like he was being gracious when he shook hands with the opposition and went over to the Portugal fans to applaud them. But when the other Portugal players approached the fans together, Ronaldo took off his captain’s armband and walked off the pitch and straight down the tunnel without looking in the direction of his colleagues. It all seemed a bit childish from the 37-year-old.
What will he do if Portugal win the final and he's on the bench?