Even at 36, Cristiano Ronaldo remains Portugal's talisman
Fernando Santos thought he was done with it. So much so that before the 2018 World Cup last-16 clash against Uruguay, the 66-year-old coach made a bet with Portugal’s press officer, Onofre Costa, believing that 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 chuckled.
But as Portugal head into a first major tournament as defending champions this summer, Ronaldo is no longer a topic brought up in every news conference. In fact, Santos is facing a different conundrum: given he can call on arguably his country’s best-ever crop of players, does Ronaldo still merit a place in the starting XI?
Portugal’s problem is that their most famous and gilded player – with five Ballon d’Or, 104 international goals and a stack of silverware for club and country – appears to prevent other footballers from playing at their best.
It cannot have escaped anyone’s attention that arguably the best display of the entire six-and-a-half year Santos era came last September, when Ronaldo was out injured. In his absence, Diogo Jota, Joao Felix, Bernardo Silva and Bruno Fernandes had a game for the ages and beat 2018 World Cup runners-up Croatia 4-1 at Porto’s Estadio do Dragao.
Bruno Fernandes (left) is a part of Portugal's New Golden Generation
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 stars such as Luis Figo, Rui Costa, Fernando Couto, Joao Vieira Pinto and Paulo Sousa in the 90s.
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 on a regular basis.
“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 former Blackburn Rovers and international striker Nuno Gomes, who now works as 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.
“Obviously, 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. He has been the main reference point for this entire generation.”
Having shared a dressing room with Ronaldo for most of his career, Ricardo Carvalho witnessed his transformation from a winger with no end product to a predatory forward whose ravenous appetite for goals and glory is matched, in the modern era at least, only by Lionel Messi.
Cristiano Ronaldo's appetite for goals for club and country remains unmatched
The former Chelsea and Porto defender played with the 36 year-old 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, one of the best in the world, but then we lose and he’s missed. It’s just how football works,” says Carvalho. “He has improved a lot over the years. 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 fortunately, we now have more solutions in the squad – Jota has done very well this season, Felix is an enormous talent while Bernardo is so consistent. It is a different moment. We have more players and, perhaps for that reason, we are able sometimes to maintain our football, despite the absence of one or two pieces. If Cristiano is not around, we can still play the same way.”
When Portugal kick off their title defence against Hungary on June 15 in Budapest, Ronaldo will set a new 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 that came before.