Cristiano Ronaldo takes on his former mentor Carlos Queiroz after bitter parting of ways
Portugal's former head coach aims to inspire Iran to last 16 - at the expense of superstar he nurtured
A game with as much riding on it as Iran-Portugal in Saransk this evening hardly requires a sub-plot but the strained relationship between two of its main protagonists could prove more than an intriguing sideshow by the end of the night.
The stakes are high regardless, but the desire of the Iran coach, Carlos Queiroz, to get one over his compatriot Cristiano Ronaldo, whom he previously coached with Manchester United and Portugal before things turned sour, should not be underestimated given the trenchant personalities involved.
It is almost eight years to the day since Queiroz's Portugal lost 1-0 to Spain in the last 16 of the World Cup in Cape Town and a frustrated Ronaldo appeared to pin the blame on his manager as he stormed out. "Ask Carlos Queiroz," the Portugal captain snapped as a reporter sought an explanation for the defeat.
Ronaldo later issued a statement claiming that in the heat of the moment he had not been thinking straight, but Queiroz was unimpressed. "We are not unaware of those remarks but we are not here to be friends with the players," he said. "Portugal needs Ronaldo, and Ronaldo needs the national side, but if this shirt unnerves some players, they have no grounds to be there."
The friction between manager and player had little time to fester. By September, Queiroz had been sacked, paying the price for a dismal start to qualifying for Euro 2012 and a six-month ban, later annulled, for allegedly disrupting an anti-doping test ahead of the World Cup. Yet Queiroz and Ronaldo's relationship has never recovered. "Neither he nor I owe anything to the other," Queiroz said in 2014. "I have nothing against him but I think that it wasn't behaviour adequate for the captain of the national team."
They are not thought to have spoken since but, while no one can be quite sure whether the pair will finally seek to heal old wounds or allow the rift to deepen at the Mordovia Arena tonight, it did not always used to be this way.
At Old Trafford, Queiroz was as much a mentor and father figure to Ronaldo as Alex Ferguson and a key influence in the development of a player who would eventually join Real Madrid for a then world-record £80 million and become one of the greatest of all time.
"The three of them gelled and it brought the best out of his talent," David Gill, the former United chief executive, said. "Cristiano was very ambitious from day one. He wanted to be the best footballer in the world and he saw very clearly in Carlos and Alex the guys who could help him fulfil that ambition."
Upon joining United in 2002 as Ferguson's assistant, it was Queiroz who had encouraged the manager to strike up a close working relationship with Sporting Lisbon given their capacity for unearthing young talent, which led to the clubs embarking on a coaches' exchange programme.
It was Queiroz who stressed the need to move quickly for Ronaldo since Real and Arsenal were also circling. And once Ronaldo signed for United for £12.24 million in August 2003, it was Queiroz who played a critical role alongside Ferguson in helping the 18-year-old adapt.
Having a fellow Portuguese speaker in tow was probably as reassuring for Ronaldo's protective mother, Maria Dolores, as the player himself.
It is easy to forget now watching the colossus who scored a hat-trick against Spain and the only goal in Portugal's victory over Morocco that Ronaldo's decision-making was wayward in his early days at United.
Ferguson recalls the tireless work Queiroz did with Ronaldo on the training pitch to iron out over-indulgence.
"In the early days, I accept, he showboated a lot, and Carlos worked hard on that part of his repertoire," Ferguson wrote in his 2013 autobiography. "He would say to Cristiano all the time, 'You're only a great player when people outside the club start recognising you as such. When you start delivering passes, delivering the crosses at the right time, people won't be able to read you. That's when the great players emerge.' "
Gill concurs. "Cristiano came over a very young boy, clearly very talented, but also relatively naive in terms of how to use that talent, and the combination of Carlos and Alex worked wonders, really, for pushing him on."
One of the most common conversations Queiroz and Ferguson would have about Ronaldo centred around how long they felt they could keep him, and it was actually at Queiroz's house in Lisbon that they negotiated a deal for the player to remain at the club for one more season before joining Real in 2009.
There were several factors at play there, but Ronaldo had lost his father, Jose, two years after arriving in Manchester and there was recognition and appreciation of the void Queiroz and Ferguson had helped to fill in his life. They protected him after the storm around Wayne Rooney's sending- off for England against Portugal in the 2006 World Cup and Ronaldo's infamous wink, and just as notably when the player became a target of Ruud van Nistelrooy's ire at United.
Van Nistelrooy's United career was over when he swore at Ferguson after being confined to the substitutes' bench for the 2006 League Cup final against Wigan. But the Dutch striker had actually burned his bridges in the lead-up to the game when he aimed a kick at Ronaldo in training and responded by saying: "What are you going to do? Complain to your daddy?"
Van Nistelrooy meant Queiroz, not Ronaldo's dad.
"Carlos had looked after Ronaldo, as you would expect," Ferguson later explained. "Here was a young man with a dying father. If he couldn't ask for help from Carlos, who could he seek it from?"
Iran can qualify for the last 16 and probably eliminate Portugal by winning tonight. It would be a triumph for Queiroz and a crushing blow for Ronaldo.
Whatever materialises, though, they have one another to thank in many ways.(© Daily Telegraph)