DOHA, Qatar — Portugal has spent the entirety of the 2022 World Cup trying to keep a collective straight face amid drama surrounding Cristiano Ronaldo. While he played poorly at Manchester United, head coach Fernando Santos stood by him. When he gave an explosive interview on the eve of the tournament and split with his club, players steered clear of the subject. But on Monday, Santos finally snapped.
At a news conference on the eve of Portugal’s Round of 16 matchup with Switzerland, the first three questions for Santos were about Ronaldo. They were about reports of a record-breaking contract with a club in Saudi Arabia, and about videos that captured Ronaldo reacting angrily to being substituted in the 65th minute of Portugal’s loss to South Korea.
Santos said immediately after the match that he hadn’t seen the video. By Monday, he had, and “I didn't like it,” he said, via a translator. “Not at all.”
“I really didn’t like it,” he reiterated.
He spoke with hand gestures, with a shake of his head, and with a stern look and furrowed brow. He said the issue had been handled in-house, but then, when asked whether Ronaldo would start and captain the team on Tuesday, as he has throughout the tournament, Santos did not confirm whether he would.
“I only decide who’s going to be the captain when I reach the stadium,” he said, again via a translator. “That’s what I’ve always done. That’s what I’m going to do.”
Ronaldo was visibly frustrated as he walked off the field midway through the second half of what was, at the time, a tie game. Videos clearly captured a brief verbal spat with a South Korean player. They also appeared to catch Ronaldo complaining that Santos was “in a rush to sub me.”
Santos said multiple times at his news conference that the issue was “closed.” But of course, under an intense media spotlight, few Ronaldo-related issues are ever closed.
There have, separately, been consistent suggestions in the Portuguese and English-language media that Ronaldo should be benched for soccer reasons, irrespective of off-field drama. His club performances declined sharply over the past year at United. In three group games here in Qatar, he won and converted a controversial penalty, but did not score from open play. He looked decent in a 2-0 win over Uruguay, but was ineffective against Ghana and South Korea.
Ronaldo, though, has only come off the bench three times for Portugal since 2004 — twice against lowly Andorra, and once earlier this year against Spain.
Santos, meanwhile, had nothing to say about Ronaldo’s reported $200 million-per-season contract with Saudi club Al Nassr. He’d only been told about it shortly before the news conference, he said.
According to journalist Fabrizio Romano, the widely reported offer is officially on the table, but Ronaldo hasn’t agreed to it. Al Nassr is the favorite to sign him, in part because no European club has submitted an offer, but nothing is finalized.