Cristiano Ronaldo’s World Cup dream is over, and probably for good – but is his whole career coming to an end too?
Relegated to the role of substitute by his country after falling out with his coach, Ronaldo’s tumultuous tournament never seemed to have a happy ending – but his tears after The elimination of Portugal in the quarter-finals turned out to be a good summary of his current situation.
A shock loss to Morocco means the 37-year-old is still without a World Cup winner’s medal – the only major honor that has eluded him – and he is currently a global icon with no club to call after his angry departure from Manchester United last month.
People were already wondering where he would play next at his football club and while the Portuguese public still adore him, questions about his future with his country will surely follow.
A goal, an explosion then a fall
Ronaldo left United just before the start of the World Cup, but his time in Qatar has started quite well.
The way he won a controversial penalty in Portugal’s first group game against Ghana has been described as “total genius” by Fifa, and he converted it to become the first man to score in five World Cups.
Things went downhill fairly quickly after that, however, and he failed to score a goal in his next two starts before falling out with boss Fernando Santos for his outburst after being substituted against South Korea .
Dropped out against Switzerland in the round of 16 – the first time since 2008 that he hadn’t started a major tournament game – his young replacement Goncalo Ramos scored a hat-trick and Ronaldo was suddenly the superstar who was no longer just ‘a substitute.
This was how he was also used against Morocco, although he had most of the second half to make an impact, coming on in the 51st minute with his team trailing 1-0.
His appearance alone gave him another record – his 196th international cap equaled the men’s record held by Kuwaiti striker Bader Al-Mutawa – but he couldn’t mark it with the kind of special moment which he has produced so often over the years.
Ronaldo already held the record for most men’s international goals, with 118, but he never looked likely to add to that tally against brilliantly organized opposition.
Will but no end product
Ronaldo only managed 10 touches in total and it took him until the 91st minute to land a shot, which had neither the power nor the direction to beat Moroccan goalkeeper Bono.
While Ronaldo was always ready and waiting for the right ball in the box, he never came.
When Rafael Leao’s 97th-minute cross flew over his head before being headed terribly wide by Pepe, Ronaldo fell to his knees in the penalty area and, head in hands, seemed to know his time was up.
When the final whistle came moments later, he shook hands with a few opponents and then left the pitch directly in the company of a cameraman and – very briefly – a fan who had escaped security at looking for an inopportune, and failed, selfie request.
Ronaldo went all the way to the tunnel before his emotions got the better of him, but his tears coming out of this tournament will be how his World Cup will be remembered, as well as his row with his manager.
Santos then played down their breakup, saying: “I don’t think what happened to Cristiano, with the criticism, had any impact on the game. We are a united team.
“If we take two people who were the most upset with the game, it was Ronaldo and myself. It’s part of the job of the coach and the player.”
Bench, but far from undesirable
United they may be, but Portugal are going home – after much talk about whether they are a better team without their fading talisman.
New eras and new beginnings regularly follow surprise defeats for any team in major finals, but whether Santos stays or leaves as national boss, they are unlikely to get rid of Ronaldo now.
He still has plenty of credit in the bank with his country after inspiring victory at Euro 2016, their first major tournament triumph.
The number of Portuguese fans wearing ‘Ronaldo 7’ shirts outside the Al Thumama stadium on Saturday was a sign that they have not forgotten their past glories despite what has happened over the past two weeks.
Ronaldo’s sister Katia Aveiro spoke for many of them with a emotional message on instagram after the defeat of Morocco.
She began: “When my grandchildren ask me to talk about struggle, honor, glory, work, dedication, obstacles, human evil in exchange for envy, when they ask me to talk about trophies, goals, prizes, records of an unprecedented legacy, I will talk about my brother, their uncle.”
And she concluded, “I’m going to tell you about the empire he built, I’m going to tell you about his strength, what he promised and fulfilled, I’m going to tell you about his character, I’m going to tell you that he never gave up even when they had already dug his grave. I’m going to show the film, the real film, of their uncle’s life.
We still don’t know how this film will end, but an appearance at a sixth World Cup would be quite a twist.
He will be 41 by the time the next world tournament comes around – but, if he wants to, there is surely a chance for redemption at Euro 2024.
Who his employers might be at that time is quite another matter.
A number of clubs are interested in signing Ronaldo when the transfer window opens on January 1, including Saudi club Al-Nassr, who made him a huge offer last week.
The Middle East has been far from a happy hunting ground for him at this tournament – but it could well be where we’ll see him in action next.