Cristiano Ronaldo. Yesterday’s man – The Athletic

When the full-time whistle blew, it did so not only on a World Cup quarter-final but also on a lifetime ambition for Cristiano Ronaldo.

Portugal’s greatest footballer will never win a World Cup. Ronaldo is now an unattached soon-to-be 38-year-old after his recent divorce from Manchester United. His most likely destination appears to be the Saudi Arabian league and even he may not have the self-belief, or perhaps self-delusion, to expect one more crack at this tournament aged 41 in the summer of 2026.

At the end, his retreat from the competition was wearily familiar to anyone who has observed Ronaldo at close quarters in recent times.

He was the first player from his team off the field after the final whistle confirmed Portugal’s 1-0 loss to Morocco.

He barely even seemed to notice a pitch invader who rushed up to him, so dazed he appeared by this knockout blow.

In the tunnel, cameras captured Ronaldo in tears as it sank in that his magisterial international record — 118 goals in 196 appearances — would not be crowned by the sport’s ultimate team prize. And, deep down, he also knew his greatest rival Lionel Messi remains in with a shot of glory over the next eight days.

For Ronaldo, this was another humbling experience during a humbling World Cup campaign.

It began with confirmation of his second career exit from Old Trafford and it ends with his reputation further diminished.

Perhaps the most remarkable statistic on the night is the fact that Ronaldo, that most prolific of goalscorers, will end his career without a single goal in the knockout rounds of the World Cup.

For a player his fiercest admirers argue to be the greatest footballer of his generation, that is a staggering fact.


Ronaldo was utterly ineffective during his second-half cameo against Morocco (Photo: Alex Grimm/Getty Images)

He has appeared in eight knockout games but his two such appearances during this tournament, against Switzerland in the round of sixteen and Morocco on Saturday, came from the substitute’s bench.

For Ronaldo, this assignment was very different to his midweek introduction from the bench against the Swiss but both experiences must have felt like forms of torture for a man with his individual drive.

When coach Fernando Santos dropped Ronaldo to the bench on Tuesday, his replacement Goncalo Ramos scored a hat-trick in a 6-1 win and therefore entirely vindicated the call. On this occasion, Ronaldo will have felt that his arrival on 51 minutes, with Portugal a goal down, was later than he desired. He was left with 39 minutes (plus eight more added on) to rescue his nation.

Yet even when Ronaldo emerged, his impact on his team was negligible. He made only five passes, completing three. He touched the ball 10 times, three of which were in the Morocco penalty area.

He only had one real sight of goal, when a strike was well saved down low by Yassine Bounou. His presence seemed to encourage less patience and more desperation from his colleagues, as they turned to hopeful crosses instead of incisive forward play.

Another old-stager, the 39-year-old Pepe, came closest to an equalizer with a late header, which gave Morocco such a fright that defender Jawad El Yamiq kissed his Portuguese counterpart on his head after seeing it miss.

El Yamiq is a journeyman currently playing at Real Valladolid, who are mid-table in Spain’s La Liga. At left-back, Yahia Attiyat Allah was outstanding and he plays for the Moroccan side Wydad Casablanca (although they are the current African champions). That, in many ways, is the beauty of World Cup football, the great leveller, where nobodies become somebodies.

Where a player such as Attiyat Allah can overcome an intergalactic name such as Ronaldo. Where a player such as the Netherlands’ Wout Weghorst, loaned out by English club Burnley this summer following their relegation to the second-tier Championship, can drive Argentina’s Lionel Messi to the point of despair.

Morocco, of course, are a mighty collective, keeping clean sheets against Croatia, Belgium, Spain and Portugal in their five matches at this World Cup. They conceded one shot on target in that game against Spain and only three here. Ronaldo is now only a finisher — and even that has been erratic this season — but here he played in a team that struggled to create chances.

Portugal scrambled for excuses. Pepe blamed the Argentine referee Facundo Tello.

Pepe said: “We conceded a goal we did not expect, but I have to say this; it is strong, but I have to say it — it is unacceptable that an Argentine referee whistled this game. After what happened yesterday, with Messi.

“With everything that is being said in Argentina, and the referee comes here to take this game. I’m not saying he was conditioned… but… what did we play in the second half? Their keeper was throwing himself to the ground all the time. They just said eight minutes added on. We are working seriously and this referee… eight minutes?”

Portugal midfielder Bruno Fernandes appeared to think it strange that an Argentine official should still be officiating when his country remains in the competition.

Fernandes said: “I don’t know if they are going to give the trophy to Argentina already.”

At that point, the team’s press officer touched Fernandes’ arm but the Manchester United player said: “I don’t care, I’m going to say what I think and f— it. It is really strange to be refereed by a professional from a country which is still in the competition. It has clearly tilted the field against us.”

Manager Santos was more circumspect, saying: “We could have done more and we failed to do so, therefore we should not blame the referee. It doesn’t make sense.”

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Santos may also wish to avoid certain sections of social media tomorrow morning and particularly the account of Ronaldo’s other half, Georgina Rodriguez. She suggested Santos had erred in not selecting Ronaldo from the start and warned never to “underestimate the greatest player in the world”.

In his post-match press conference, however, Santos showed zero remorse.

He said: “No regrets. I think this was a team which played very well against Switzerland. Cristiano is a great player, he came in when we thought it was necessary, so no, I have no regrets.”

For Santos, there is probably some relief that he may now get a few weeks without having to take questions about Ronaldo, whose present and future has dominated so much of this tournament for Portugal.

His interview with UK broadcaster Piers Morgan brought plenty of headlines in the lead-up to the World Cup and his exit from United was confirmed just a few days before the tournament began.


A distraught Ronaldo leaves the field with a pat on the back from Santos at full-time (Photo by Alex Grimm/Getty Images)

Ronaldo did have one positive moment — a penalty scored against Ghana in the first game. In doing so, he achieved the extraordinary feat of becoming the first man to score at five World Cups.

Yet this season, his only other goals have come twice against FC Sheriff in the Europa League and once against Everton in the Premier League.

Santos had remained a Ronaldo loyalist but there were signs of fatigue in the pre-match press conference before facing Ghana when he reclined in his chair and sighed when Fernandes (sitting alongside him) had to take yet another question about his suddenly former United team- mate

Ronaldo thought he scored another when he tried to claim a goal against Uruguay, only for FIFA’s technology to introduce the truth to his truth.

Then, Ronaldo reacted petulantly to being substituted during the second half of the group-stage defeat by South Korea. He put an index finger to his lips and later explained he was irritated by opposing striker Cho Gue-sung asking him to accelerate his exit from the pitch: “I told him to shut up, he has no authority, he doesn’t have to say anything.”

Santos said he did not like that behavior and for the first time, a sense grew that he might make the bold call and drop arguably the most famous athlete on the planet.

That feeling came to fruition during a lunchtime meeting before the Switzerland game. Santos explained: “I invited him into my office. He was not happy about it, since he’s always been a starting player. He told me, ‘Do you really think it’s a good idea?'”

After this defeat against Morocco, it is hard to believe Ronaldo will feel any differently now.

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(Top photo: Lars Baron/Getty Images)

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