A forlorn figure stood in the middle of the pitch a couple of minutes before the referee blew the final whistle for the Portugal vs Morocco quarter-final clash in the 2022 World Cup. And as soon as the match was over, he did not wait to console his teammates, nor did he exchange formalities with his nation’s conquerors. In a familiar scene to his former club’s fans, he stalked away from the cacophony emanating from the wall of sound and made his way to the tunnel. The beads of sweat running down his face were replaced by tears during that lonely walk as Portugal’s one-time talisman Cristiano Ronaldo broke down in front of the cameras before making his way to the locker room. Portugal had been knocked out and consequently snuffed out what might very well be Ronaldo’s last chance at adding the World Cup to his enviable trophy cabinet.
With the world captivated by Lionel Messi’s and Mbappe’s thrilling final days later, which saw Argentina lift the cup for the 3rd time, Ronaldo seems like a forgotten entity, a sidelined character. Far away from the commotion, there is radio silence from his end as his eternal rival lifted the World Cup in Doha. There were two cryptic posts after Portugal’s exit where he said that the dream has ended and in the other, he shared a story with the text, “3 aspects of reality: Pain, uncertainty and constant work.” That was 6 days ago and since then, there has been nary a peep from the star whose vocal interview with Piers Morgan led to the termination of his contract with Manchester United.
It was not supposed to end this way for a superstar who had scored 32 goals for club and country last season. The fall from grace has been quick and decisive, cutting deep into the psyche of the player.
But the ill-conceived interview before the World Cup may have done much damage to a Portugal side who were considered favourites heading into Qatar. The limelight was on Ronaldo again but this time, its heat was too much to take and it began to affect the team. People thought that once Portugal started to play in the tournament, things would fall in place. And they did, for a while. Against Ghana in the opening match, Portugal won with Ronaldo scoring and becoming the first player to score in 5 different World Cup tournaments. But the world was more interested in talking about his ghost goal which he had initially claimed as his but FIFA and Adidas confirmed was Bruno Fernandes’ goal.
Ronaldo would later score his only goal in this World Cup through a penalty and all seemed well. In contrast, Messi’s Argentina were in a mini crisis after losing to Saudi Arabia. How the tables would turn in just a few short days.
Ronaldo started against both Uruguay and South Korea in the other group stage matches but he seemed to be missing a step. The once lethal attacker, capable of turning matches on its head, had not travelled to Qatar. In his place, there was a player, whose skills were on the wane. He did not carry that same attacking threat, his speed had deserted him and his timing was all over the place. Against Korea, he inadvertently cost his side a goal and the match before being subbed off. While he was going off, he made a gesture which many believed was towards the coach. The axe fell swiftly after that. Ronaldo was benched for Portugal’s Round of 16 match against Switzerland. The result? They cut through their opponent’s defence like a molten knife through Swiss cheese, demolishing them 6-1. What made it even worse for the erstwhile Portugal captain was the fact that his replacement Goncalo Ramos came in from relative obscurity and scored a hattrick. Santos’s team selection was vindicated.
Next match against Morocco, Ronaldo found himself on the bench again, something that was inconceivable just 2 matches ago. As he watched on, Youssef En-Nesyri emulated prime Ronaldo and scored with a towering header to give the African team a 1-0 lead. It was the type of goal that we have seen Ronaldo score over and over and over again in the last decade.
Ronaldo would be called upon after a few minutes into the second half with the stage perfectly set for him to channel his inner mentality monster. But, except for one flash in the 90+2 minutes when he was suddenly imbibed with his lightning-fast pace and still failed to beat the Moroccan keeper Bono, the die was cast. Just like a candle which flickers brightly before going out, that moment of sheer godlike agility, was in fact Ronaldo’s last showcase in Qatar. Portugal were out and Ronaldo exited another World Cup without scoring a single goal in the knockout stage. Let that sink in for a moment.
Heading into the new year, Ronaldo is without a club after ending ties with United. A situation that would have been unfathomable just a year back. With his reputation taking a massive hit and his body slowly showing the ravages of time, Ronaldo feels more and more human.
He has a long uncertain road ahead of him, something that he is not accustomed to. Without a club, without much support and without a clear path back to the national side, the once seemingly indestructible cyborg might as well get used to his mortal form as his search for Champions League football continues.