LUSAIL, Qatar — At the fourth goal, even Cristiano Ronaldo, standing in front of the Portugal bench and applauding, couldn’t complain. After the fifth, he offered only a dry smile. Portugal was in the quarter-finals of the World Cup and he knew for a day that it was a bigger story than Cristiano Ronaldo.
Ronaldo doesn’t leave the spotlight easily. Thirty-seven and newly unemployed, he was desperate to make his mark in his final World Cup. However, his performances at group level have not matched those of his considerable peers, so on Tuesday night his coach Fernando Santos turned somewhat mercilessly.
Ronaldo was left out of the Portugal squad for the match against Switzerland. Gonzalo Ramos, a 21-year-old striker from Portuguese side Benfica, was given the go-ahead instead, earning his first start for Portugal and the unenviable task of replacing the most prolific scorer in his country’s history. Just over an hour later, Ramos achieved an even more remarkable feat: he made an entire country, an entire World Cup, and wondered why he didn’t start Ronaldo.
“Not in my wildest dreams,” Ramos said, “I thought about starting in the knockout phase.”
Imposing himself with a veteran’s cool and a gunslinger’s goal celebration, Ramos scored a 67th-minute hat-trick to lead Portugal to a 6-1 win over Switzerland and a one-day draw with Morocco in Saturday’s quarter-finals.
The first goal was probably the best: a quick turn in the penalty area and a shot so hard and fast that it went past goalkeeper Yann Sommer. Or maybe he meant it better.
As the ball hit the roof of the net, Ronaldo took off like a shot, burst off the bench and sprinted towards the corner flag, disappearing into a pile of teammates and substitutes.
Ronaldo clearly doesn’t want it to be this way. He strolled through pregame warm-ups, doing little to hide his disappointment in his benching and loosening up for the game. But the goal seemed to change something in him, and he couldn’t hide it.
He celebrated again when Pepe doubled Portugal’s lead late in the first half and again ran into a group hug with his teammates, then stood and applauded respectfully when Ramos’ second came six minutes after half-time. Centered pass from Ruben Diaz. Ramos’ third came 15 minutes later when Jono Felix teed him up on a dead run.
Rafael Guerrero and Rafael Leo added Portugal’s goals as Switzerland’s defense and its World Cup campaign crumbled. But little will be said beyond what Ramos did and Ronaldo didn’t.
After all, a large part of the crowd was looking forward to seeing him. So the clock ticked past the hour mark and Switzerland fought back valiantly with a goal to reduce the deficit to 4-1, the fans calling for Portugal’s victory cigar. “Ro-nal-do! Ro-nal-do!” they chanted again and again.
Santos, exasperated by the lost shutout and the lax defending that allowed it, tuned it out as he paced the grass in front of the dugout. he shouted. He pointed out. he screamed. However, he did not invite Ronaldo.
When Ramos scored his third goal – Portugal’s fifth – the old coach succumbed to the crowd and sentiment and story line. Ronaldo was told to put on his jersey and get ready. With a faint smile, he stepped forward, accepted the captain’s armband from Pepe, crossed the touch line and showered in a belated salute.
He then gave the fans what they wanted, finding the net on a breakaway 10 minutes after coming on. But he was yards offside at the start of the run and the goal was duly cleared. A second chance three minutes later had the fans off their seats again, but this time Ronaldo failed to put it away and he was again offside anyway.
It didn’t matter at the time. At the whistle he shook a few hands, offered a few waves and made a beeline for the tunnel, not even advancing as he passed Santos, his coach. Nothing to say anyway, really.
Asked if he was happy, he replied with a smile, “Of course, of course – Portugal won.”
Santos later said there were no issues within the team or with his star player. “I have a close relationship with him,” he said. “I always have.” They have known each other since Ronaldo was 19, he pointed out, and they “never misunderstand” each other.
He said of forwards Ronaldo, Ramos and Andre Silva, “There are three players I trust completely and I will use what I believe is the best for every match.”
He didn’t really have to explain any of his decisions on Tuesday. Job done. Ramos scored three times. Portugal won. It has at least one game to play now, and maybe another, and another after that. Portugal can play with its most famous striker on the bench, and on the field it can be very effective.
And no one, not even Ronaldo, can complain about that.
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