Fernando Santos thought he was done with it. So much so that before the 2018 World Cup last-16 clash against Uruguay, the manager made a bet with Onofre Costa, Portugal’s press officer, believing he would not be asked for the umpteenth time in Russia about his side’s dependence on Cristiano Ronaldo.
When the inevitable question came, his face immediately broke into a grin. “Onofre has just won another free coffee,” Santos said with a chuckle.
But as Portugal head into a first major tournament as defending champions, Ronaldo is no longer a topic brought up in every news conference. In fact, Santos is facing a different conundrum: given that he can call on arguably his country’s best-ever crop of players, does 36-year-old Ronaldo still merit a place in the starting XI?
Portugal’s problem is that their most famous and gilded footballer – with five Ballons d’Or, 104 international goals and a stack of silverware for club and country – appears to prevent others from playing at their best.
Arguably the best display of the six-and-a-half-year Santos era came last September, when Ronaldo was out injured. Diogo Jota, Joao Felix, Bernardo Silva and Bruno Fernandes had a game for the ages to beat 2018 World Cup runners-up Croatia 4-1 at Porto’s Estadio do Dragao.
Along with the likes of Ruben Dias, Joao Cancelo and Ruben Neves, they are part of the so-called New Golden Generation, who have been tipped to make an even bigger impact than the original one – formed by leading players such as Luis Figo, Rui Costa, Fernando Couto, Joao Vieira Pinto and Paulo Sousa in the Nineties.
It remains a matter of unleashing them, however. So far, with the whole team still revolving around Ronaldo’s killer instinct, they are yet to replicate club form for country regularly.
“I can certainly understand why there have been so many questions about the team over-relying on Cristiano, but I think that we are always stronger with him,” says Nuno Gomes, the former Blackburn Rovers and international striker, who is now a football pundit. “I still see him playing at the best of his abilities and justifying the role he has within the national team as our most dangerous weapon. The kind of player who fans trust to solve situations that seem difficult to.
“There are other players who are standing out and searching for their place in the side, but I believe they still feel the need to have him by their side.”
Having shared a dressing room with Ronaldo for most of his career, Ricardo Carvalho witnessed his transformation from a winger with little end product to a predatory forward whose appetite for goals and glory is matched, in the modern era at least, only by Lionel Messi.
The former Chelsea and Porto defender played with Ronaldo during his best years at Real Madrid and was a member of the squad who won the 2016 European Championship. He concurs with Gomes.
“When we win, nobody is needed, even someone like Cristiano, but then we lose and he’s missed. It’s just how football works,” Carvalho says. “He’s no longer the boy who used his pace and dribbling to run to the byline and cross. He’s now a complete striker who, by his own merit, has made scoring 40 or 50 goals a season look like an ordinary thing.
“He remains a player capable of making a difference at any moment. When games get complicated, it’s a free-kick, a corner or a header from him that still decides.
“But we now have more solutions – Jota has done very well this season, Felix is an enormous talent while Bernardo is so consistent. Perhaps for that reason, we are able sometimes to maintain our football. If Cristiano is not around, we can still play the same way.”
When Portugal kick off their title defence against Hungary today in Budapest, Ronaldo will set a record by having featured in five European Championships across a 17-year span. Few, however, are predicting he will dominate this summer like he did the ones before.
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