Portugal enter a brave new era as they take on Liechtenstein on Thursday night. Having parted company with manager Fernando Santos after a difficult World Cup, former Belgium boss Roberto Martinez steps in. With red-hot talent like Goncalo Ramos, Matheus Nunes and Rafael Leao in tow, the future looks very bright. And yet a towering reminder of Portugal’s past remains. For part of this bright future at least, Cristiano Ronaldo will be coming along for the ride.
On the surface, the presence of Portugal’s record scorer in the squad for these Euro 2024 qualifiers should come as no surprise. Ronaldo is his country’s greatest footballer of all time and its biggest icon since Eusebio. However, he is also 38 years of age and playing in the Saudi Pro League. With Portugal looking to the future in so many aspects, Ronaldo’s inclusion feels like a regressive return to its past.
Until recently, Ronaldo justified his place in this Portugal team. It feels like longer than a season ago, but last year he netted 18 goals in 30 Premier League games for Manchester United. But his refusal to acknowledge the passing of time and its effect on his abilities ultimately imploded the goodwill he’d built at Old Trafford. After a public divorce with United and particularly new manager Erik ten Hag, via a two-night stint on Piers Morgan Uncensored, he pitched up at Al-Nassr.
Things have been going well for the big fish in that particularly shallow pond. Nine goals in 10 games across all competitions is a fine return especially for a player approaching middle age. But a dignified spell in one of the world’s less-renowned leagues is no guarantee of an international place, particularly for a country as illustrious as the Euro 2016 champions.
The dawn of Martinez’s tenure felt like the appropriate time to end Ronaldo’s involvement. The former Real Madrid superstar had a poor World Cup, scoring just once from the penalty spot, reacting petulantly to being substituted and ending the tournament out of the starting XI. With Ronaldo plying his trade outside a top-five league for the first time in two decades, and his performances for his country falling off a cliff, there seemed little reason to keep him around.
A new, fresh manager can get away with things an incumbent often can’t. Santos faced endless questions throughout the World Cup about dropping Ronaldo. But, had Martinez omitted him this time, it would not be a “dropping” at all. A manager’s first squad is a statement, a waypoint for the rest of their journey in the post. You almost get a free hit and, while there would have been questions to answer about ‘CR7’, most would have understood the Spaniard’s reasons for not selecting him.
But now there will inevitably come a time when Ronaldo will be dropped by Martinez. The scrutiny will be much greater when Martinez finally ceases to pick a player he has previously relied upon. Tearing the plaster off now would have been momentarily painful, but clean and fleeting in its sting. Now the question will linger. What if Ronaldo doesn’t plunder a goal against the tame opposition of Liechtenstein and Luexmbourg? What if he is substituted and reacts like he did at the World Cup? What if he refuses to come off the bench, as he did for United against Tottenham Hotspur in one of the final flashpoints of his acrimonious departure?
The temptation to pursue the tried-and-tested would be understandable if Portugal were short-handed in forward positions. If they didn’t have Ramos, the World Cup hat-trick sensation. Leao, the dazzling talent that is lighting up Serie A for AC Milan. Joao Felix, one of the few jewels in Chelsea’s crumbling crown. Diogo Jota, the inventive and adaptable attacker behind some of Liverpool’s best moments last season. Most countries would kill for this lineup of attacking talent. Few would bolster it with a Saudi-based striker pushing 40 with a history of disciplinary problems.
This will all feel like a moot point if and when Ronaldo adds, perhaps considerably, to his 118 international goals this week. His supporters, of which there are many, will claim that his bright light remains undimmed by the encroaching shadow of time. But as Manchester United found out, sometimes harmony outweighs goals. A young, impressionable team can often benefit from being cut loose from a brilliant but single-minded individual talent. Martinez might reap the rewards of picking Ronaldo during his international break, but regret ever selecting him during the next one.
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