Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal team-mates defend their captain after he was benched
LUSAIL, Qatar – Shortly after a shrill whistle announced Portugal’s stunning 6-1 victory over Switzerland, Cristiano Ronaldo quickly approached the Portuguese fans behind the north gate at Lusail Stadium and then, after applauding them, before his teammates As a token of appreciation, he trotted off the field and down a tunnel.
He had just been demoted, on the bench for the first time in his glittering career at a World Cup. And as his teammates stepped up without him, he remained the center of attention. Dozens of cameramen turned their backs on Portugal’s starting XI and focused on his expressionless face. The headline writers then focused on him. Experts wondered about him. The questions after the game revolved around him.
Here and there, in a post-game interview zone, Bruno Fernandes felt compelled to answer a few questions.
“Do you think anyone likes sitting on the bench?” he asked rhetorically after asking a question about Ronaldo’s reaction.
Third goalkeeper Fernandes also argued vividly, “Probably not happy to be on the bench. So you think Cristiano would be happy?”
“If the coach benched me next game,” he concluded, “I’d be pissed.”
His point was well made. But it didn’t exactly disprove suspicions that Ronaldo – who in recent months has reacted irritably to a bench change at Manchester United and his substitution in a group game against Portugal – made it poorly on the bench.
Bruno and Bernardo Silva both tried to reassure the English speaking media that Ronaldo had enjoyed and contributed to a great team win. “He showed a great personality in the dressing room. And he was fine,” said Silva.
But, he added, “of course sometimes he’s not happy because everyone wants to play.”
However, Ronaldo himself did not stop speaking to reporters, leaving his scrutinized actions open to interpretation. Cameras captured him as he entered the stadium with a stern, unflinching expression on his face. They later caught him hugging his team-mates after the win, but when he bumped into 21-year-old Gonçalo Ramos, who had scored a hat-trick in his place, he wore a businesslike expression.
Shortly thereafter, he approached the fans and returned their applause. Pepe, a veteran defender, saw Ronaldo and hastily called his teammates to join, but by the time they were able to wrap up their joyous handshakes and congratulations near midfield, Ronaldo had left the stage without them.
His mere presence had drawn attention and noise throughout the evening, eventually snatching headlines from Ramos, whose hat-trick was the first in a World Cup knockout game this century.
Fernandes, speaking afterwards, insisted those headlines weren’t Ronaldo’s fault. “Cristiano is the most famous player in the world [all] time,” he said. “No one is more famous than Cristiano – in sport. Not in football, in sports. It’s normal for people to come to see Cristiano… I don’t see any surprise there. … Cristiano is Cristiano. His name speaks for itself.”
Players claimed that his presence and attitude did not cause any problems.
“No, I don’t think so, I don’t think so,” Bernardo said. “I think he’s helping us today.”
Ramos agreed. “Honestly, nobody on 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 gave us courage.”
Bruno tried to defend his teammate when asked why they were so much better without Ronaldo.
“Yes, but we won the first two games with Cristiano [starting] 11,” he said. “Cristiano is doing his job, he is doing his part. He is happy with the result.”
But the drama and interrogations dogged her out of the Lusail Stadium and will dog her into her quarter-finals against Morocco.
When asked if Ronaldo would play in that game, manager Fernando Santos vaguely replied that “all 24 players can play. And if they’re not in the starting XI, they can play later.”