LUSAIL, Qatar – Moments after the shrill whistle announcing the time of Portugal’s resounding 6-1 victory over Switzerland, Cristiano Ronaldo strode towards the Portuguese fans outside the north gate at Lusail Stadium, and then, after applause, before his teammates the team managed to join in gratitude, he wandered off the field and went down into the tunnel.
He had just been demoted and was on the bench for the first time in his illustrious career at a World Cup. And while his teammates soared without him, he remained in the spotlight. Dozens of cameramen turned their backs on the 11th Portugal international and focused on his expressionless face. Then the headline writers focused on it. The experts wondered about him. Post-match questions revolved around him.
So it was then and there, in the post-game interview area, that Bruno Fernandes felt compelled to answer a few questions.
Do you think anyone likes to sit on the bench? he asked rhetorically, answering a question about Ronaldo’s reaction.
Even the third goalkeeper, Fernandes, briskly retorted: “He probably doesn’t like being on the bench. So, do you think Cristiano would be happy?”
“If the coach in the next game put me on the bench,” he concluded, “I would be angry.”
His point of view was well received. But that hasn’t quite dispelled speculation that Ronaldo, who has reacted irritably in recent months to being benched at Manchester United and being substituted by Portugal in a group stage match, took it badly. to be on the bench.
Bruno and Bernardo Silva tried to reassure the English-language media that Ronaldo enjoyed and contributed to the team’s victory. “He showed himself in the locker room with a great personality. And he was fine,” Silva said.
But, he added, “Of course, sometimes he can be unhappy because everyone wants to play.”
Ronaldo himself, however, did not stop talking to reporters, leaving his carefully scrutinized actions open to interpretation. Cameras captured him entering the stadium with a stern, unwavering expression on his face. They later captured him hugging his teammates after the win, but when he ran into 21-year-old Gonzalo Ramos, who scored a hat-trick in his stead, a businesslike expression appeared on his face.
Shortly after, he walked towards the fans, returning their applause. Pepe, an experienced defender, saw Ronaldo and hurriedly called his teammates to join in, but by the time they finished their joyful handshakes and congratulations near the midfield, Ronaldo left the stage without them.
His mere presence attracted eyes and noise all evening, and ultimately took away the attention of Ramos, whose hat-trick was the first in the World Cup play-offs of this century.
Fernandes, speaking later, insisted that Ronaldo was not to blame for this headline theft. Cristiano is the most famous player in the world [all] time,” he said. “There is no one more famous than Cristiano – in sports. Not in football, in sports. It’s normal that people come to see Cristiano… I don’t see anything surprising in this. … Cristiano is Cristiano. His name speaks for itself.
The players claimed that his presence and attitude did not create problems.
“No, I don’t think so, I don’t think so,” said Bernardo. I think he’s helping us today.
Ramos agreed. “Honestly, no one in our team talked about it,” said the undisputed man of the match. – Cristiano, as our captain, did what he always does, he helped us. He encouraged us.”
Bruno, when asked why they were so much better without Ronaldo, tried to defend his teammate.
“Yes, but we won the first two games with Cristiano in [starting] 11,” he said. “Cristiano does his job, he does his part. He is happy with the result.”
But drama and interrogation haunted them outside the door of Lusail Stadium and will haunt them in the quarter-finals against Morocco.
When asked if Ronaldo would play in that game, manager Fernando Santos replied vaguely that “all 24 players can play. And if they’re not in the starting 11, they can play later.”