LUSAIL, Qatar — For 18 years, society’s unceasing obsession with Cristiano Ronaldo had lifted him onto a pedestal. It sucked media and brands into his orbit. It prompted squeals and selfies from fans wherever he went. It kept him in Portugal’s starting lineup amid drama and alleged crimes, and even amid underwhelming soccer, until, on Tuesday night here at the Lusail Stadium, at long last, the pedestal crumbled and Ronaldo fell.
Portugal did the unthinkable and benched him. Waves of young attackers, unleashed by his absence, put on a show. And his replacement, 21-year-old Gonçalo Ramos, scored a hat trick as Portugal romped to a 6-1 World Cup Round of 16 win over Switzerland.
Photographers still zeroed in on Ronaldo. Fans still shrieked whenever big screens showed his unmissable face. They sang his name. But then a soccer game began, and birthed a new hero.
Ramos powered a left-footed shot past a helpless Swiss keeper 17 minutes in. He later flicked home a second, and dinked home a third. And in 67 minutes that not a soul saw coming, he blasted his country into a new era.
Ramos was all of 2 years and 2 months old when Ronaldo made his Portugal debut back in 2003. He was all of 21 years and 5 months, with zero Portugal appearances, when this Ronaldo-led squad arrived in Qatar last month.
“Not even in my wildest dreams did I dream of being part of the starting 11 for the knockout phase of the World Cup and scoring a hat trick,” Ramos said after the match.
But, with drama swirling, Portugal manager Fernando Santos made the impossibly difficult decision to drop his captain, top scorer and national icon. He turned to Ramos, a breakout star as of only a few months ago, with just 36 Portugal minutes under his belt. And, in part with addition by subtraction, he created a free-flowing unit that produced Portugal’s best performance of the tournament.
For months, it appeared that the long-awaited day would never arrive here in Qatar. Santos had tolerated Ronaldo’s pedestrian performances at Manchester United. There was the transfer saga, and the benching, and the refusal to come on as a sub. Still, Santos said in September, “I don’t think anyone has any doubts that Ronaldo continues to be of great importance to the national team.”
On the eve of the World Cup, there was the explosive interview and the split with Manchester United. Still, Santos and Ronaldo’s teammates stood by him. “We’re happy to know we can still count on him,” Bernardo Silva said.
Ronaldo, though, seemed to be on a mission to prove that they couldn’t. He did not score from open play in three group games. When he was subbed off against South Korea, he sulked, and appeared to bad-mouth Santos. Santos saw those videos, and “really didn’t like” them. It’s unclear if they were the final straw, or if this was a soccer decision.
But it was nonetheless a massive one. Ronaldo, no matter what he did on and off the field, has drawn rapturous cheers whenever he’s been shown on TVs or big screens here in Qatar. He was always the player who led 22 teammates out onto the field for warmups. He was the man whom the stadium emcees have obsessed over, turning his trademark “SIU” celebration into a call-and-response chant with thousands of unconditionally adoring fans.
And he, Ronaldo, naturally, was the person whom cameras sought out on Tuesday after the benching. Dozens of photographers turned their backs to the starting 11 during the Portuguese anthem and aimed their lenses at No. 7. A man who appeared to be a Portugal team staffer had to furiously usher them away to keep the pregame script moving.
He was, for 70 minutes, just another player, just another reserve, running amid teammates down the sideline to celebrate Ramos’ first goal. But the obsession continued. “Ronaaallll-do,” fans crowed in unison in the second half. “Ronaaaallll-do!” When he emerged from the dugout to enter the game as a 73rd-minute substitute, fans greeted him with a roar roughly as loud as the ones that had greeted goals.
His 17-plus minutes of action, though, were unremarkable. Portugal without him, on the other hand, was just the opposite. It was Rafael Leao who scored a world-class goal off the bench. It was Bruno Fernandes and Bernardo Silva who’d driven the Portuguese attack all game.
They and an ascendant team are on to face Morocco in the quarterfinals. Their generational star will, of course, remain the center of attention. But perhaps a new one has arrived to propel Portugal toward elusive World Cup glory.