It’s hard to imagine a country having a more feted footballer, a more celebrated and adored hero, someone who means so much to such a high percentage of the population, than Cristiano Ronaldo in Portugal.
No one compares in England — not Bobby Charlton, not the man who lifted the World Cup, Bobby Moore, certainly not Wayne Rooney either despite the records he broke. Perhaps Diego Maradona, who is held in greater regard than Lionel Messi in Argentina? But a difference in Portugal is that, other than 1966 when a Eusebio-inspired team finished third, they had only ever qualified for one World Cup before 2002.
Ronaldo has not only lifted the team to greater heights than many older Portugal supporters will ever have dreamed of, winning Euro 2016, but he has also broken individual records that may not be beaten for decades to come. He’s made more international appearances (191) than any European player ever. He’s scored more international goals (117) and Champions League goals (141) than any player ever. He’s won five Ballons d’Or, five Champions Leagues, seven domestic league titles and is one of the greatest players in the history of the game. For a nation of just 10 million people, he is essentially a demigod.
Now, however, Ronaldo has, in club football least, been reduced to a mortal. After the mutual termination of his contract at Manchester United, Ronaldo, aged 37, begins what is likely to be his final World Cup as a free agent. That is not to say Ronaldo fascinates the world any less. At an open training session on Wednesday evening, where media were allowed to observe, film and photograph the opening 15 minutes, one Chinese cameraman turned up in a Ronaldo jersey. Ronaldo gave the photographers their shot, sprinting onto the field, leaping into the air, and dispatching a trademark header into an empty goal.
Yet time passes and Ronaldo’s superpowers begin to wane, his adulation isn’t quite taken for granted in 2022. Just as in Manchester and England, a debate about whether Ronaldo should still be playing every minute for Portugal is being had. It’s a debate that was unthinkable just a couple of years ago, but, aged 37, there are things Ronaldo can no longer do, despite his remarkable physical and fitness. The magic finally seems to be fading.
Eight goalless appearances in his last nine Portugal caps have seen, probably for the first time, Portuguese media openly criticise Ronaldo. They have asked questions of manager Fernando Santos, such as, “Are you forced to pick him in your team?” Again, that was never an issue when he was unquestionably the first name on the team sheet. Right now he’s a guy who isn’t playing club football. And that interview hasn’t helped.
This week in Doha, the Portuguese national team has indulged in the soap opera surrounding Ronaldo. On Wednesday, at the pre-match press conference before Portugal’s opening fixture against Ghana, his former club team-mate Bruno Fernandes took the questions.
Fernandes was asked a number of times about the impact of Ronaldo’s exit from United, which culminated in Santos at one point reclining his chair, rolling his eyes and placing his hand over his face in exasperated fashion.
Fernandes, who has captained Manchester United this season, said: “Cris hasn’t discussed it with me. It’s his decision — a personal decision.
‘I don’t feel uncomfortable. I don’t have to pick a side. It is a privilege to play for the international team with Cristiano Ronaldo. It is a privilege to play for Manchester United. Cristiano has always been an inspiration to me and it was a dream come true playing with him but nothing lasts forever. It was good while it lasted. Now he has made a decision with his life. Every decision has to be respected, whether we agree or not. We know it might be difficult to make some decisions but these decisions have to be for the wellness of ourselves and our families.”
But even among those who once adored Ronaldo, patience has been tested. You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.
Speaking to journalists, fans and Portuguese football insiders in Lisbon reveals how Portugal is coming to terms with the end of an era and Ronaldo’s declining powers, but also the possibility of it all ending with him lifting the one trophy that has eluded him so far — the World Cup.
“Ronaldo is a global icon and puts Portugal on the world map of football and beyond,” says David Novo, executive editor of Portuguese sports newspaper Record. “He is not perfect but this does not detract from the reputation he has in the country.”
Cristiano Ronaldo was born in February 1985 on Madeira, an island hundreds of kilometres to the south west of mainland Portugal. But it is Lisbon, Portugal’s capital and largest city, which is the hub of his burgeoning business empire.
He reportedly spends much of his free time in a luxury penthouse apartment here despite not playing domestic football in the country since 2003. The Lisbon bar bearing Cristiano Ronaldo’s name is part of a hotel in his Pestana CR7 chain that also has branches in Funchal, Marrakesh and New York.
Signed shirts line the wall and, behind the hotel reception, Cristiano Ronaldo aftershave and boxer shorts are on sale.
The TVs on the wall show matches in the Champions League, the competition that Ronaldo has helped define for almost two decades but no longer plays in. In the commercial breaks, Ronaldo’s face repeatedly pops up as he promotes products.
A man in the bar who prefers not to be named quotes a 1990s Portuguese ballad when describing Ronaldo’s complex relationship with Manchester United.
“Never go back to where you once were happy,” he says, adding that the lyrics sound better in Portuguese.
Ronaldo’s explosive interview with Piers Morgan has been, obviously, massive headline news in Portugal, as it has been around the world. He may not have mentioned the national team, or anything much to do with Portugal specifically, but that doesn’t mean he’s escaped criticism back home. Far from it.
Portuguese football expert Tom Kundert, who has run the Portugoal website for two decades, says the reaction has been negative, both from the media and the public.
“Nobody can really see what can be gained from it,” Kundert says. “He seems to be having problems realising he’s not the best player in the world anymore, he seems to be struggling with that mentally.
“He’s such a national hero. He’s been someone that people in Portugal have been able to point at and say, for all his flaws, we can say to our children: ‘Look at what you can do if you work hard and maximise the talent you have’. Well, people are questioning that what’s happened in the past few months, not just the interview, means his image as the ultimate professional has slipped.
“He’s done things that can’t be justified. It’s all been a bit messy. Some of the talk shows have been tearing him apart. They’ve gone completely overboard in my opinion, especially in terms of how this might impact Portugal. I lean more towards what Santos said, that this is to do with Ronaldo, Man United, his future and his club career, it’s nothing to do with Portugal.
“Midfielder Joao Mario was asked about it last week and he said they’re used to it, every World Cup or Euros since 2004 you do press conferences and 70 per cent of questions are about Ronaldo. So in terms of it being a possible distraction to the team, in that regard it’s no different at the moment.
“Some players I’ve spoken to think it’s beneficial to Portugal as it takes the pressure off them.”
While players are often described as being bigger than their club, Ronaldo is perhaps a rare example of someone who at times seems even more famous than his country.
Portugal’s footballing fortunes have improved over the last couple of decades and countless top players have graced Europe’s biggest teams, but he has often looked a level above his team-mates, and not always been especially happy about it.
Diogo Campo, a Sporting Lisbon fan and club member who speaks to The Athletic while on the way to watch his team play Eintracht Frankfurt in the Champions League before the interview took place, says Ronaldo is the greatest footballer of all time and he would love nothing more than seeing him lift the World Cup next month.
However, his view is not one of unquestioning adulation.
“If you don’t pass the ball to Ronaldo he gets crazy, if Ronaldo misses a goal knowing he has a guy in a clear position he doesn’t care,” says Campo. “Ronaldo has a huge influence on the national team.”
Bruno Fernandes, a compatriot and team-mate at Manchester United, has far worse statistics when playing with Ronaldo than when the fellow Portuguese is not on the pitch.
“Ronaldo should be selected to be part of the national team, but he should not be the first option from the beginning,” says Campo. “He’s clearly not as effective as before. It’s normal, he’s 37.”
He suggests certain journalists in the Portuguese media seem unwilling to criticise Ronaldo despite his deteriorating performances.
“People are afraid to let the myth die.”
In Portugal, nobody is quite ready to let go just yet. Ronaldo’s troubles in Manchester are well-documented but in Portugal, rather than evidence of demise, these incidents are viewed more as the inevitable tensions associated with a player of such talents.
Journalist Novo points to various dramas with the national team, such as Ronaldo throwing the captain’s armband to the ground or not thanking fans after a defeat.
“Age passes through everyone, even Cristiano Ronaldo,” says Novo. “We are talking about a player who is 37 years old, almost 38, so it is normal that he is not at the same level as before. It’s impossible.”
Ronaldo recently said he is expecting to play at the European Championship in Germany in 2024. However, by then, it may no longer be his choice.
“Ronaldo has always been a machine and has always known how to take care of his body and maximise his performance,” says Novo. “It will be like this until goodbye, adjusting to the difficulties that arise. It can be painful for many, especially Ronaldo himself, but that’s life.”
It is hard to know what Ronaldo will do next on the club stage.
He appears rather stuck, with his Manchester United spell coming to an end, yet nobody else in Europe willing to pay his exorbitant wages. There have been rumours of enquiries from Saudi Arabia but he is said not to be interested.
There have also been suggestions of a potential Lisbon homecoming for Ronaldo. Remarkably Ronaldo is only nine days older than Ruben Amorim, the manager of Sporting Lisbon who is fast becoming one of Europe’s most exciting coaches after ending their 19-year title drought last year.
However, one source close to the Sporting hierarchy told The Athletic the idea of Amorim signing Ronaldo is a non-starter. Youthful exuberance has been key to the club’s recent success, and the potential disruption that a global superstar would bring to the dressing room is seen as too risky despite Sporting’s faltering start to the 2022-23 season.
Carlos Matos Rodrigues, a Portuguese television journalist, told The Athletic: “He always said that he wanted to play at the Champions League level. But from January, there are only 16 clubs where he can play in that competition. I really don’t know where he can fit. Or if he just has to change his mind and understand that maybe in the next six months, he has to find something different.
“The choice may have a strong connection with what he will do in the World Cup. If he plays well, if Portugal reaches a final or semi-final, I think you won’t be so worried about where he is going to play in the next six months. In any case, you should have all the agents at the door of the training centre just trying to sign with Cristiano.”
For the next month, though, Ronaldo’s travails on the club stage can be forgotten, especially in Portugal, the country whose modern identity feels bound up with the performances of this relentless high-achiever.
Although on paper Ronaldo may be fading compared to some of his team-mates, his performance ceiling is so high that many Portuguese people are largely willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and want him on the pitch, hoping for one last flash of brilliance in this astonishing career, which could help them win the greatest prize of all.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if he can do something amazing,” says Campo. “He’s this thing that give you luck. The talisman.”
Ronaldo has earned credit with how he spoke at a press conference on Monday, in which he addressed the interview and said his team-mates should not have to answer for anything he has done.
“The timing of the release of the interview coincided with the training of the Portuguese national team,” says Novo, suggesting it was an unwelcome distraction. “However, Ronaldo did well in Qatar. He went to the press conference and answered everything, or at least almost everything. Subject closed and the focus of the Portuguese team can be only and only on the competition.”
But the debate about whether Ronaldo should start every game for Portugal in the World Cup continues, heightened by a recent poor performance in a 1-0 Nations League defeat to Spain in which Ronaldo played all 90 minutes. Joao Felix (aged 23), Rafael Leao (23) and Goncalo Ramos (21) are the new generation and there is a feeling that an ageing Ronaldo holds them back.
His status as the national hero will surely never fade. His achievements will probably go unmatched. In Portugal, he’ll always be the greatest.
At this moment, though, is he still their golden boy?
“People aren’t blind or stupid, they realise he’s not doing himself any favours with the interview, especially coming on the back of the last few months,” Kundert says. “He does get criticised by people in the street, or in cafes. But I don’t think it really impacts his standing.
Cristiano Ronaldo leaves Manchester United: How a glorious return turned sour
“There’s a completely different argument about his standing in the team and yes, people are more split on that now. It’s definitely an argument whether he should play, but whether he will play isn’t debated at all, because of his relationship with the manager. A lot of people think Ronaldo calls the shots. He’s done more for Portuguese football than anyone else so he’s almost earned the right to do that.
“I heard someone say the other day that Ronaldo is probably the most famous person in the entire world. And it might not be an exaggeration to say that. Portugal, a small country, never won a major trophy until six years ago, he’s obviously a massive source of pride.
“Also he’s got there through his hard work. Everyone knows his background, he didn’t have things given to him on a plate.
“So yes, people are disappointed in what’s happened recently. But it won’t change the big picture of how people view him. How can it? It’s almost too great to measure what he’s done for Portugal.”
Where to go next on The Athletic…