AL SHAHANIYA, Qatar – What must be going through Cristiano Ronaldo’s mind right now?
Ahead of their World Cup quarter-final with Morocco on Saturday, Portugal’s superstar emerged for their training session on Thursday evening at the Al Shahaniya Sports Club looking unruffled and unfussed.
Spending most of the warm-up next to defender Pepe, his best friend in the national squad, he betrayed little emotion, at times flashing his million-dollar smile, even with the microscope over his intriguing status with the Selecao in Qatar.
Hours earlier, the Portuguese Football Federation (FPF) issued a denial that Ronaldo had threatened to leave the team’s camp in Qatar in a tense conversation with coach Fernando Santos, after being axed from the starting XI for the team’s 6-1, last-16 victory over Switzerland.
“At no time,” said the FPF, “did the captain of the Selecao, Cristiano Ronaldo, threaten to leave the national team during the stay in Qatar. Every day Ronaldo is building up a unique track record at the service of the national team and the country, which must be respected.”
It added that the 37-year-old’s appearance against Switzerland – he came on with 16 minutes left and the game at 5-1 – was a further demonstration of his commitment to the team. The former Manchester United striker, a five-time Ballon d’Or winner, is the most-capped Portuguese player and the top international goalscorer of all time.
“A group too united to be broken by external forces,” Ronaldo posted on social media about an hour before training on Thursday. “A nation too brave to let itself be frightened by any opponent. A team in the truest sense of the word, which will fight for the dream until the end! Believe us! Go ahead, Portugal!”
Inspiring words. But what would have been going through his mind on Thursday when he was one of the 10 players told not to grab a bib before training – suggesting he would again not be in the line-up against Morocco?
He did not sulk or frown, perhaps well aware that his is a face that courts a thousand camera clicks. An incredible image from the Switzerland game of a horde of photographers focusing their lenses on him on the Portugal bench, instead of the team lining up on the pitch, told its own story.
In the 15 minutes open to the media, Ronaldo appeared on the periphery during training. In a two-sided game, he hardly managed to get on the ball or made a successful tackle – a regular sight earlier this season when he was in a United jersey – as younger teammates like midfielders Otavio and Bruno Fernandes glided past.
What would have been going through his mind when Goncalo Ramos, the 21-year-old who took his place against Switzerland and promptly scored a hat-trick, drilled an unerring shot into goal in their two-sided game?
Otavio, who spoke to the media before training, defended Ronaldo. Asked if the superstar told the rest of the squad he wanted to leave, the 27-year-old said: “He never said anything because he never wanted to leave. On the contrary. He is an example and he is our captain. The Selecao is together with him. He is our strength and we are all united.”
The Porto player went on to add that the entire squad “know everything that has been going on”, but are only focused on playing and winning.
“The atmosphere was always normal, nobody saw an argument or anything like that,” said Otavio. “It’s normal for him to get upset when he doesn’t play, but it’s not only Cristiano, it’s all the players.
“Everything he does or doesn’t do makes the news, and sometimes the details of the images only show the negative and not the positive. Cristiano is an example, he is our captain and even after knowing he wasn’t going to play, he was one of those who supported the team the most. We are all with him.”
Ronaldo left United in November after giving an explosive TV interview in which he took aim at the club and manager Erik ten Hag, also in part because he was dropped for a big Premier League clash with Tottenham Hotspur. Talk of his club future has surrounded him here, with rumours rife that he is close to signing a lucrative deal with Saudi Arabian side Al-Nassr.
The link to the Middle East suggests that Ronaldo, who turns 38 in February, is perhaps finally realising that he too is human, and that his powers are waning. He has found the going tough in Qatar, converting only from the penalty spot in Portugal’s group opener against Ghana, when he became the first player to score in five World Cups.
In what was fascinating timing, the final kick in training as the Portuguese media officer began ushering the press away from pitchside after the allotted 15 minutes, belonged to Ronaldo. Midfielder Vitinha had won the ball and laid it off for him to blast it into goal beyond goalkeeper Diogo Costa.
So what exactly is Ronaldo thinking? Maybe that he still has just enough in the tank to make a difference for Portugal in Qatar. Even if it is from the bench.