Why Portugal’s reliance on Ronaldo cost them at Euro 2024

Sports

HAMBURG, Germany — Cristiano Ronaldo stood amongst his teammates, hands on hips, lips pursed, eyes looking out into the Portuguese crowd behind the goal.

Rúben Dias and Nuno Mendes, the warriors who had blunted France star Kylian Mbappé, co-led the applause. Ronaldo joined in and then turned to embrace Pepe, his sidekick in so many battles, the older brother facing his curtain call at 41 years of age. Pepe sobbed, Ronaldo whispered in his ear.

At that moment, Ronaldo looked just like any other of his Portugal teammates, united in disappointment. He did not look like Cristiano Ronaldo, GOAT candidate. And maybe, if Portugal boss Roberto Martinez had picked up on this sooner, we’d be telling a different tale.

It felt as if Martinez — by playing Ronaldo in every minute of every game of this tournament (bar the final 25 minutes against Georgia) — was more concerned with giving him opportunity after opportunity to write another glorious chapter in his stellar career than he was with actually giving Portugal the best possible chance of winning.

The numbers are cold and merciless. Ronaldo took 23 shots in this tournament, the second most by any player failing to score in the Euros since the group stage format was introduced in1980. His expected goals of 3.51 without finding the net is the most ever at a major men’s tournament since 1980.

Maybe Martinez looked at this, remembered that Ronaldo had scored in every major tournament he had played in (five World Cups and five Euros) and told himself: “Hey, he’s clearly due.” If that’s what happened, he’s like the guy who bets on the Washington Generals to beat the Harlem Globetrotters because “they’re due.”

Yes, Ronaldo was coming off a prolific season in the Saudi Pro League and yes, regression to a mean is a thing and it’s entirely possible that, over time, he would have caught up with his xG. But that’s the key: time. It’s a knockout tournament, stumble and there is no tomorrow. And even the GOATs have dry spells.

And it’s not just the numbers, it’s what Martinez’ eyes and brain were telling him (or should have been telling him).

Yes, he had built a framework around Ronaldo that maximized his strengths and masked his weaknesses as best he could. Rafael Leão, out on the left wing, stayed high when Portugal defended, so there would always be a speedster for the “out ball” if needed. Bruno Fernandes was given licence to shadow into the box, almost like a second striker. Bernardo Silva and João Cancelo would offer crosses from the right. Even the corner kicks, with Pepe and Ronaldo tying up the opposing centre-backs, seemed designed for him.

It worked in qualifying, heck, it worked against France for much of the game (though this might have had a lot to do with Didier Deschamps conservatism) as Portugal generated the better chances. But at some point, surely it must have dawned on Martinez just how much of a strain Ronaldo’s lack of mobility out of possession was putting on his midfield and how many opportunities he was failing to convert.

It may have dawned on Ronaldo, too. Early in the first period of extra time, Francisco Conceição tore past an opponent and cut it back for him at the near post. A young Ronaldo would have calmly met the ball and guided it in the top corner. Old Ronaldo sent it sailing over the bar.

Moments later, out of the blue, he went on a one-man pressing rampage, summoning energy out of the ether and sprinting at Dayot Upamecano, who brushed him aside and booted the ball away. In the old days, Ronaldo would have gotten to the ball before Upamecano, spun around him and buried it past Mike Maignan. And in the unlikely event they got there at the same time, it would have been Upamecano bouncing off him, not the other way around.

But to quote Slim Charles from “The Wire”: “The thing about the old days is… they the old days.”

The odd thing here, is that this is one boil that had already been lanced. Ronaldo had been dropped for the knockout rounds by Martinez’s predecessor, Fernando Santos, at the Qatar World Cup, just 18 months ago. If Santos, who had coached Portugal for eight years including Ronaldo’s prime, who had stood alongside him when they won their first (and only) major tournament at Euro 2016 (with Ronaldo, who had come off injured in the final, standing next to him like an assistant coach), could do it, why couldn’t Martinez?

Especially given Martinez’ own background. He isn’t Portuguese and he didn’t grow up with the Ronaldo-as-saviour psychodrama. He’s an intelligent coach who came up the hard way as both a a player and a manager. He was the outsider brought in to offer a fresh perspective.

Instead, he came across as a guy who had guzzled the Kool-Aid. On a night when Portugal were the better side — and credit for that has to go to Martinez too, because he was out-coaching Deschamps and his usual counterattacking schtick — it seemed as if Martinez was intent on not just advancing past France, but doing it with Ronaldo in a starring role.

Did he not trust Gonçalo Ramos or Diogo Jota to spell him off the bench, even for a short while? Did he feel like he wanted Ronaldo to redeem himself for the missed penalty and missed late chance against Slovenia? If so, that only makes it worse.

Partly because that Slovenia game (and the 120 minutes Ronaldo played) should have been a sign of what fatigue can do at 39 years of age. And largely because, Ronaldo doesn’t need anyone to give him anything (let alone a shot at some kind of redemption). With everything he has achieved, he’s way beyond that.

Was he expecting Ronaldo to signal to the bench and say “Boss, I’m exhausted, it’s not happening for me today, let’s make a change?” That would be delusional. Elite athletes thrive on self-confidence and self-belief. Ronaldo spews it from every pore. Expecting him to take himself out of the game is just silly.

In contrast, Mbappé, who scored his first-ever European Championship goal vs. Poland via a penalty, asked to be substituted after feeling too tired to continue in extra time.

Portugal aren’t out of the Euros because Ronaldo played 120 minutes. Let’s be clear about this. They lost on penalties because João Félix put his against the post and everybody else scored. And because they didn’t convert the various chances they created, from Leão in the first half, to Fernandes and Vitinha after the break to Mendes at the very end of extra time.

But the way they exit this Euros leaves a sour taste and the strong impression that Martinez got tunnel vision, believing that pushing Ronaldo front and center would somehow preserve his legacy.

Ronaldo’s legacy is secure. It doesn’t need to be preserved. Maybe if Martinez had realized it earlier, maybe if he’d seen him as just another one of his players — like he was at the end, applauding the fans and consoling his teammates — Portugal would be in the semifinals.

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