The fortunes of Portugal’s national team have been inextricably linked with Cristiano Ronaldo for nearly two decades.
Is a new era upon us?
Ronaldo was in tears as he made his way to the locker room following Portugal’s 1-0 loss to Morocco in the World Cup quarterfinals on Saturday.
It remains to be seen if that was the last time the world saw Ronaldo on soccer’s international stage. If it is, it marks a huge moment for the Portugal team, given Ronaldo is its captain, record scorer and greatest ever player.
There’s a chance the team might also have a different coach for the first time since 2014 when qualification for the 2024 European Championship begins in March.
EXPECTATION VS. PERFORMANCE
Reaching the quarterfinals was the minimum expected of Portugal considering the depth of talent in its squad. The team sailed through the group phase by winning its opening two games.
Coach Fernando Santos rotated most of his starting lineup for the final group-stage match against South Korea, which won 2-1 on a late goal, and then thrashed Switzerland 6-1 in the round of 16. Despite Morocco’s strong defense and status as the surprise of the tournament, Portugal was still expected to beat the North African nation in the quarterfinals so, in that sense, it is another missed opportunity and probably an overall underperformance by Ronaldo and his team.
The world is waiting to see if the 37-year-old Ronaldo retires from international duty after scoring 118 goals — a record in men’s soccer — and making 196 appearances in his 19 years with the national team. If Ronaldo does continue, most likely it’s only for Euro 2024 and not also the 2026 World Cup, by which time he will be aged 41. At 39, center back Pepe is likely to have played his final major tournament.
What’s more in doubt is the future of Santos, who took charge of Portugal in 2014 after four years at the helm of Greece’s national team.
He has a contract through 2024 and repeatedly deflected any talk about leaving his post earlier after the loss to Morocco. “I will have a discussion with the (Portuguese soccer federation) president and when we go back to Portugal, we will deal with the issue of the contract,” Santos said.
A future without Ronaldo might be an alarming proposition but there’s talent coming through. Up front, there’s the 21-year-old Gonçalo Ramos, who scored a hat trick against Switzerland when standing in for Ronaldo in his first start for the national team. There’s much excitement about the development of António Silva, a 19-year-old center back at Benfica who seems the natural replacement for Pepe — a player more than twice Silva’s age. João Félix is only 23 so has time on his side, while full backs Diogo Dalot and Nuno Mendes are only 23 and 20, respectively.
With or without Ronaldo, Portugal is the favorite in a kind-looking qualifying group for Euro 2024. Portugal opens group play in March with a home match against Liechtenstein. The other teams in Group J are Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iceland, Slovakia and Luxembourg. If Portugal reaches the tournament in Germany, expect the team to be among the favorites — even without its most famous player.