DOHA, Qatar — So, the dream is still alive for Cristiano Ronaldo.
Soccer's most prolific modern-day scorer might yet, at the age of 37 and probably playing in his last World Cup, claim the one major title to elude him in a career like no other.
It didn’t quite feel that way, though, as he walked off the field alone at Lusail Stadium, leaving the rest of the Portugal team to celebrate getting through to the quarterfinals after a 6-1 rout of Switzerland on Tuesday.
In fact, it was a rather sad sight. A veteran in decline departing the scene as his teammates — some barely half his age — continued to party.
This has been a turbulent and bruising few weeks for Ronaldo.
When the tournament started, he broke a record — becoming the first male player to score at five different World Cups — and then he underwhelmed, failing to score in back-to-back games and responding to a substitution against South Korea by showing his displeasure and angering his coach.
Then came Tuesday night and the moment that might be looked back on as the start of the end of his glittering, record-breaking international career. Not only was he dropped from the starting lineup, but the 21-year-old player who replaced him — Goncalo Ramos — scored a remarkable hat trick.
Just imagine the thoughts going through Ronaldo’s head as he trudged off the field after playing around 20 minutes as a substitute?
This was one of Portugal’s greatest wins — indeed, it was the country’ largest margin of victory in a World Cup knockout game — and it felt like Ronaldo could hardly get off the field quick enough.
So where does this leave Ronaldo? Already without a club, he is now likely to be second choice for Portugal to Ramos, who only made his Portugal debut three weeks ago.
Portugal coach Fernando Santos threw Ronaldo a lifeline, saying he’d continue to select players according to the strengths and weaknesses of the team’s opponent. But it’s unthinkable that Ramos will lose his place now for the quarterfinal match against Morocco.
“I will use what I believe is the right strategy, as I have done my entire life,” Santos said, as bullish as ever.
Tellingly, Santos praised his team for playing with “a lot of fluidity” and “as a collective.” That style is harder to forge when Ronaldo, whose mobility is just not what it was, is the sole striker.
His goal that was ruled out for offside against Switzerland was an example of a player trying to steal a few meters to compensate for his lack of pace, and it’s not the first time that has happened at this World Cup.
Meanwhile, Ramos needed just 72 minutes in his first start at a World Cup — in fact, it was his first start in international soccer — to show he might be the future. His finishing, his link-up play and his work off the ball underlined why he is being spoken of as one of the next big things in Portuguese soccer.
Portugal midfielder Bruno Fernandes said “most people in the world had never heard about him” before the match against Switzerland.
Well, they have now, and expect Benfica to be busy fielding enquiries into a striker who has scored 21 goals for the team in 2022 and has just netted the first hat trick in a World Cup knockout stage since Tomas Skuhravy for Czechoslovakia in 1990.
While some of the top clubs might be beckoning for Ramos, Ronaldo looks to be heading for the obscurity of the Saudi Arabian league, even if that does come with an exorbitant salary.
For a man who spent last summer pushing for a move from United because he wanted to play in the Champions League, it is quite the fall.
Will he go there as a World Cup winner? Maybe, because Portugal produced a dynamic performance against Switzerland that was every bit as impressive as Brazil’s the previous night against South Korea.
And there remains that tantalizing prospect of a title match between Argentina and Portugal. One that will invariably be labeled a head-to-head between Ronaldo and his long-time rival, Lionel Messi.
But what might be eating away at the Portugal superstar, what he might have been thinking as he left the field at Lusail Stadium, is that while Messi is leading Argentina to that final frontier with goals and brilliant performances, Ronaldo is no longer the player carrying his national team.
Ronaldo might even be a burden, given the way Portugal performed without him against Switzerland.