Ronaldo's back - but has new Portugal boss Roberto Martinez made a massive mistake recalling Cristiano?
Cristiano Ronaldo's continued presence in the Portugal squad is not a surprise. One of the first things new manager Roberto Martinez did after taking over in January was fly to Saudi Arabia to meet with the iconic No.7.
Unlike some of the other candidates for the position created by Fernando Santos' post-World Cup dismissal, the Spaniard was willing right from the get-go to include Ronaldo in his Euro 2024 qualification campaign.
The question now, though, is whether Ronaldo will start up front at what is meant to be the dawn of a new era for the Seleccao?
🏆 TOP STORY: Chelsea set to axe Auba over Barca trip
📣 HAVE YOUR SAY: Is Mbappe really ready to captain France?
🚨 MUST READ: Viva Garnacho! Inside Man Utd star's rise
Of course, given the standard of the opposition this week – Portugal host Liechtenstein on Thursday before travelling to Luxembourg on Sunday – it likely won't matter who leads the line. Portugal should easily win both fixtures. If Ronaldo starts at the Estadio Jose Alvalade, it would not be a surprise to see him add to his record haul of international goals.
However, there is no denying that Goncalo Ramos should be Portugal's first-choice No.9 right now.
- Kaizer Chiefs & Orlando Pirates challenged by Daine Klate to improve - 'Give Mamelodi Sundowns credit before criticizing the rest'
- Jose Mourinho is a 'f*cking disgrace'! Reckless Roma coach is responsible for disgusting abuse of referee Anthony Taylor
- Kaizer Chiefs coach Zwane wasn't spot-on with his signings - ex-Orlando Pirates star Fredericks
- Kylian Mbappe, Vinicius Jr and the 21 best players in European club football for 2022-23 - ranked
- Getty Images
Goncalo Ramos: A star is born
Ronaldo may still be scoring in Saudi Arabia, but Benfica forward Ramos is starring in the Champions League, having just fired his club into the quarter-finals with a brace against Club Brugge.
In total this season, he has 24 goals in 36 appearances for Roger Schmidt's hugely impressive side, and at 21 years of age, he is the future of Portuguese football, the forward around whom the Seleccao need to construct an attack to make the most out of an outstanding crop of players.
The World Cup proved that, in scintillating fashion. After replacing Ronaldo in the starting line up for the last-16 clash with Switzerland, Ramos ran riot, becoming the first Portuguese player to score a hat-trick in the knockout stages since Eusebio in 1966.
He also chipped in with an assist during a performance of all-round excellence made all the more remarkable for the fact that Ramos had played just 33 minutes of international football going into the game in Lusail.
On a night when it was made abundantly clear to even some of his staunchest supporters that Ronaldo's star was fading, another was born.
- Getty Images
The collapse of Santos & Ronaldo's relationship
Of course, Ramos and the rest of the Seleccao's stellar attack were kept quiet in the quarter-finals by a Morocco side that had also shut out Croatia, Belgium and Spain in Qatar, but they obviously weren't the story in Doha.
That was Ronaldo storming down the tunnel as soon as the full-time whistle blew at the Al Thumama Stadium, the final act of pathetic petulance from a player that had caused one distraction after another during the World Cup.
The collapse of Ronaldo's relationship with manager Santos was the cause of huge surprise back home in Portugal. He was one of the very, very few players not to publicly express his gratitude to Santos after his dismissal, which was truly shocking.
After all, the former coach had afforded the forward a huge amount of influence – and leeway – during his tenure, as perhaps most memorably highlighted by Ronaldo effectively serving as an assistant coach during the Euro 2016 final, leaving his seat on the bench after being forced off through injury to instruct players from the touchline.
It was even rumoured that Ronaldo had a say in squad selections. The pair were considered to be working that closely together.
- Getty Images
Ronaldo benched by club and country
Santos certainly indulged Ronaldo in Qatar, at least initially.
When he rested all of his best players in the final group-stage clash with South Korea, with Portugal already through to the next round, he started Ronaldo. Why? Because Ronaldo always wants to play, and to score, and to break records – which, in fairness, is what he's done throughout his career.
However, it was clear to everyone that Ronaldo needed a rest more than anyone else, after two sub-standard showings, against Ghana and Uruguay.
The hope was that Ronaldo, rusty after being benched at Manchester United for the majority of the run-up to the World Cup, might play his way into form.
Instead, he just got worse, even contributing to South Korea's equaliser at the Education City Stadium. Santos' decision to substitute him midway through the second half actually felt like an act of mercy.
Ronaldo most definitely didn't take it that way, though. "You're always in such a f*cking hurry to take me off," he quite clearly said to himself as he exited the pitch.
Santos, having not seen the TV footage, initially defended his captain. However, after it had been passed on to him by his son via WhatsApp, he responded in the only way he could: by benching Ronaldo.
Achievements over ability
In a way, Ronaldo's show of insubordination had given Santos an excuse to drop the struggling striker, and Martinez could have used the World Cup debacle to bring an end to the circus, but has instead opted to keep the (sh*t)show on the road.
The former Belgium boss has publicly stated that he doesn't "look at age" when it comes to selecting squads, which is the definition of fair. If you're good enough, you're both old and young enough. It works both ways.
However, it was perhaps telling that after calling up Ronaldo for his first squad, Martinez championed the 38-year-old's "experience" rather than his goalscoring prowess.
It certainly didn't go unnoticed in the Portuguese press. For the first time in Ronaldo's career, it appeared that he had been included more for his achievements than his ability.
Again, that is hardly unacceptable. Ronaldo has literally seen and done it all. He should, in theory, be a hugely positive figure on younger players, although it certainly didn't pan out that way at Old Trafford.
Nonetheless, there are plenty of supporters that still believe Ronaldo has a role to play for Portugal – just off the bench, rather than as a starter.
Despite his childish behaviour in Qatar – during one training session, he refused to speak to anyone, including his most trusted colleague Pepe – there rightly remains a colossal amount of respect for a living legend like Ronaldo, particularly among his team-mates.
In recent years, some have privately conceded that Portugal play better without an increasingly static Ronaldo up front - yet acknowledged that his mere presence on the pitch petrified opponents.
That fear factor is now gone, though. The World Cup saw to that – and it also became clear in Qatar that Bruno Fernandes is the new leader of this Portuguese side.
Bruno: Portugal's new leader
Indeed, there have been two clear groups in the dressing room: Ronaldo's small circle of friends, and the rest of the squad led by Fernandes, who has the support of the likes of Ruben Dias and Bernardo Silva.
The question now is what happens if Ronaldo is asked to accept a reduced role, on and off the field. It will have to happen eventually. Not even an all-time great can continue forever, and the fear is that Martinez has simply kicked the can further down the road in the hope that Euro 2024 produce a happy ending, with Ronaldo able to head off to the sunset after leading his country to another title.
Ronaldo certainly believes that dream can become a reality. But he also believed that he would have been snapped up by an elite European club when he forced his way out of Manchester United by slating nearly everyone connected with the club, which obviously didn't go over well with Fernandes.
Instead, he sensationally ended his partnership with Jorge Mendes, believing the agent had failed him for being unable to organise a transfer to Chelsea, Bayern Munich or another top team.
- Getty Images
Ronaldo is adamant that he remains not only the best player in Portugal, but the world. And there are those in Portugal that concur, arguing that he should continue playing – and starting – for as long as he wants. And that's certainly possible, given his huge importance to the Portuguese Football Federation (PFF) from an economic perspective.
One only has to look at the fact that Ricky Regufe, Ronaldo's advisor and former Nike executive, was part of the national team set-up for 20 years to understand his incredible influence over the entire organisation.
However, it's not just about power, but also respect. Ronaldo's staunchest supporters argue that the five-time Ballon d'Or winner has earned the right to do as he pleases and any suggestion to the contrary is met with the kind of bitter online attacks and accusations of a lack of gratitude we've seen from the likes of Ronaldo's sister, as well as his partner, Georgina Rodriguez, in recent months.
Countless others, though, have grown weary of the Kardashian-like drama that surrounds Ronaldo, and are annoyed by the suggestion that they are disrespecting the nation's greatest ever play by arguing that players should be picked on form and not reputation.
They all still revere him, of course. How could they not, given everything he's done for his country? But the prevailing mood is, and has been for some time, that it's time to move on.
Martinez, though, has decided otherwise, for now at least. And that decision could define his entire tenure.