LUSAIL, QATAR (AP) – Cristiano Ronaldo was a solitary figure as he walked off the field following a World Cup match in which he was not the centre of attention.
He’d come off the bench in a 6-1 victory over Switzerland on Tuesday that moved Portugal into the quarter-finals. Ronaldo’s 21-year-old replacement scored a hat trick in the win – a performance sure to raise questions over Ronaldo’s future with his national team.
Ronaldo congratulated Gonçalo Ramos at midfield at the end of the game, then walked toward the Portugal section of fans and briefly clapped in their direction.
But as the rest of the squad had their moment of fan appreciation, Ronaldo left his teammates behind and walked off alone through the tunnel.
Ronaldo breezed through the post-match interview area with a huge grin on his face, only responding to one question: Was he happy?
“Of course, of course,” the superstar grinned. “Portugal won.”
Fernando Santos expressed frustration with his 37-year-old star the day before he dropped Ronaldo from the starting lineup.
Santos said the decision was tactical and not disciplinary, but he’d acknowledged on Monday he was bothered by Ronaldo’s poor attitude after he pulled him late in a 2-1 loss to South Korea in the final game of group play.
“I think those issues have been solved. I said that in my last press conference and I repeat myself: This is something which is finished, solved,” Santos said. “I have a very close relationship with (Ronaldo). I have known him since he was 19 years old in sporting.
“I think Ronaldo and I never misinterpret the human and personal aspect with that of manager and player, and what we need to do during the match,” the coach added. “That is what we will do. I will always consider he is a very important player to have in the team.”
Santos instead started Ramos, a little-known forward who made his international debut three weeks ago.
Bruno Fernandes, who also played with Ronaldo at Manchester United, was the only member of the Portugal squad to indicate Ronaldo wasn’t pleased with being benched.
Fernandes seemed prepared for the controversy surrounding Ronaldo and stood firm in defending him as a Portugal team representative tried multiple times to pull Fernandes away.
“We won the first two games with Cristiano in the first 11, and it could be that if Cristiano played, he could score three goals and no one would be speaking about Cristiano being on the bench,” Fernandes said. “Cristiano is doing his job, he’s doing his part, he’s happy with the result because the goal for everyone is to go as far as possible.
“I don’t think people should be talking about Cristiano and why he’s not playing, because when Cristiano plays and the team wins, no one talks about that,” Fernandes continued.
“When Cristiano plays and the team loses, everyone talks.” Fernandes called Ronaldo “the most famous player in the world. No one is more famous than Cristiano in sports, not in football, in sports.” But when Fernandes was asked about Ramos’ reaction to getting the start, he defensively turned the question toward Ronaldo.
“Do you think anyone likes to be on the bench?” Fernandes said. “I don’t think Cristiano would be happy. If the manager put me on the bench in the next game, I would be angry.”
The match marked the first time Ronaldo didn’t lead his teammates onto the field as the captain in Qatar, with Pepe taking the armband.
By the time Portugal had taken a 4-1 lead, the crowd at Lusail Stadium was loudly chanting “Ronaldo! Ronaldo!” for the star to enter the game.
The cheers then turned to boos directed at Santos for ignoring the pleas. When he was finally sent onto the field in the 72nd, the crowd erupted.
Pepe wrapped the captain’s armband on Ronaldo’s bicep before Ronaldo jogged onto the field. This is expected to be Ronaldo’s final World Cup.