Why Portugal's World Cup hopes are higher with Cristiano Ronaldo on the bench

LUSAIL, Qatar — Fernando Santos made the boldest decision of his 35-year managerial career for a devastatingly simple reason. He took Cristiano Ronaldo, the greatest goalscorer in men’s international soccer history, out of Portugal’s starting lineup for a must-win World Cup match. He replaced his magnetic captain with a 21-year-old who’d never started for the national team, and so, as the stunning news spread on Tuesday night, basic logic assumed that the move was disciplinary — that Santos, amid constant Ronaldo drama, had finally snapped.

Santos, though, implied on Tuesday that it had nothing to do with the latest kerfuffle surrounding his star. Ronaldo’s petulant reaction to being subbed out of Portugal’s last match was a case closed, Santos reiterated, “something that is finished and solved.”

He’d benched the most famous person in all of Portugal, rather, because here and now, in 2022, Goncalo Ramos is a better soccer player.

The decision was a strategic one.

And 70 minutes of flowing soccer on Tuesday night showed why it will surely be a permanent one.

Speaking after their 6-1 rout of Switzerland, teammates gushed about Ramos and his impact. When asked what differentiated him from the average striker, Bruno Fernandes initially responded with a chuckle. “He scored three goals,” Fernandes said, “so I think it's an easy question.”

But then he continued and, whether intentionally or coincidentally, painted a picture of Ramos using words that couldn’t describe 37-year-old Ronaldo.

“Today was the goals that he scored,” Fernandes said of Ramos, “but he's a player that works a lot, that runs a lot. He helps the team [a lot] defensively. He's that type of striker that is everywhere.”

Bernardo Silva added that Ramos is “a worker” who’s “always trying to do what's best for the team and not best for him.”

He is, in other words, everything that Ronaldo no longer is.

LUSAIL CITY, QATAR - DECEMBER 06: Cristiano Ronaldo looks on during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Round of 16 match between Portugal and Switzerland at Lusail Stadium on December 6, 2022 in Lusail City, Qatar. (Photo by Maryam Majd ATPImages/Getty Images)
Cristiano Ronaldo looks on during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Round of 16 match between Portugal and Switzerland at Lusail Stadium on December 6, 2022. (Photo by Maryam Majd ATPImages/Getty Images)

The fall of Ronaldo

Cristiano Ronaldo built the bulk of his legend by evolving from a flashy winger into a ruthless penalty-box assassin. Throughout nine years at Real Madrid from 2009-2018, he scored 310 of his 339 open-play goals from inside the area. He scored 80 with his left foot and 70 with his head, in all phases of attacking play, against all types of opponents.

For all his glam and showmanship, he became a relatively straightforward superstar, in that he mastered soccer's single most valuable skill. At the head of a humming Madrid team, he trimmed tertiary tasks from his repertoire, and homed in on the one of utmost importance, goalscoring. He hunted shots obsessively. Since 2010, he has taken hundreds more shots than Lionel Messi and Robert Lewandowski, the two players who’ve come closest — though not really all that close — matching his tally.

Along the way, soccer began to phase out one-dimensional players. Ronaldo's primary dimension, though, remained peerless and therefore invaluable. It's what Juventus paid $117-plus million for in 2018, and what Manchester United craved last year. It's why conventional wisdom still considered Ronaldo a top-five player in the world as recently as 2020, and a top-10 player in 2021.

But as his early-30s bled into mid-30s, otherworldly production quietly receded to elite production, then to merely good production. Ronaldo’s non-penalty-goal-per-90 rate fell from .90 at Real to .56 at Juventus. His assists-per-90 also fell from .29 to .16 at Juve, and then to .08 last season at Man United.

And that’s when the lack of everything else became glaring.

Over the past 365 days, according to FBref data, compared to his positional peers in Europe's big five leagues, Ronaldo ranks in the 34th percentile in dribbles completed, in the 31st percentile in Expected Assists (a measure of chance creation), and near the bottom of the pack in most defensive categories. He is, at 37, some combination of unwilling and unable to press, which is why Man United benched him and no European clubs want him.

In three group-stage starts here in Qatar, he averaged 116 sprints and high-speed runs in 77 minutes, per FIFA tracking data. Ramos, in 72 minutes on Tuesday, put in 200 of those runs.

He scored three goals, and those are what should cement him in Portugal’s starting lineup, but perhaps more importantly, he also did everything else.

Turning to the 'sorcerer'

Ronaldo stumbled through the opening rounds of the 2022 World Cup with a clumsiness and lack of explosiveness that have become customary. He wasted chances. He lunged for heavy touches. He ambled about as a stationary line-leader who, as Santos explained on Tuesday, “is more fixed, he stays in a more determined position” near the penalty area.

What Portugal wanted to be, meanwhile, was the opposite of fixed. “We intend to have a team that plays with a lot of fluidity,” Santos said.

So he turned to Ramos, “O Feiticeiro de Olhão,” the “wizard” or “sorcerer” from a small city on Portugal’s southern coast. And Ramos, who moved to Benfica in Lisbon at age 12, proved precisely why he was the perfect choice.

He’d hovered far below the radar of soccer’s mainstream as recently as earlier this year. His Transfermarkt valuation on Jan. 1, 2022, was $8 million. He scored only eight goals for Benfica in 46 appearances last season. But he built a reputation as a striker who’d do more than strike.

“He's probably more a buildup striker, that creates space for others, that is involved in the game,” Fernandes said.

“His movement, the way he presses,” Bernardo said, are other key attributes.

“He is very dynamic,” Santos said. “And that’s what he ended up showing.”

He stressed and stretched Switzerland with his constant diagonal runs into space beyond the back line. He didn’t do much of the interchanging that won him acclaim at Benfica, but his pace and activity opened up space in which Fernandes, Bernardo and João Felix operated. He essentially enabled their fluidity by doing the running that Ronaldo doesn’t or can’t. And he polished off the show with a hat trick.

He scored his second with a burst of acceleration that Ronaldo no longer has, and his third with the poise of a veteran. He set up Portugal’s fourth with a clever reverse pass in transition, and showed why he is likely here, in the starting 11, to stay.

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Santos, when asked about Ronaldo’s potential involvement in a Saturday quarterfinal against Morocco, stated vaguely: “All 24 players can play. And if they're not in the starting 11, they can play later.”

Perhaps there will be a role for the living legend in a tight second half, or even with a penalty shootout looming. But he no longer brings anything to a game that Ramos can’t. He has been displaced by a kid who once idolized him, and who, on Tuesday night, became instantly beloved.

“He's such a good guy as well,” Bernardo added, extolling Ramos. “And it's nice to know that we have players that think about the team, you know?”