Cristiano Ronaldo had just received the all-time top-scorer award at the annual Portuguese football federation gala last September when he took the opportunity to announce that he not only wanted to feature in this month’s World Cup, but also at the 2024 Euros.
Later that same night, futsal star Ricardinho was called to the stage to be honoured, too.
In his speech, he acknowledged he had made the right call by quitting the national team the previous year to give youngsters a chance. The very second those words came out of his mouth, the cameras immediately caught Ronaldo’s reaction in the audience.
It felt like Ricardinho had had a dig at the Manchester United striker. Such was the fuss that, the following day, he was forced to clarify on Twitter that he wasn’t in any way speaking about Ronaldo.
Described as ‘bigger than the Catholic church’ back home, 37-year-old Ronaldo – who was named in Portugal’s World Cup squad on Thursday – has never had his untouchable status questioned as much as he has on the way to Qatar.
The country’s most traditional sports paper A Bola recently came up with a cover debating his loss of influence on the pitch, ‘Less Ronaldo, more Portugal’.
Former Sporting CP boss and current TV analyst Tiago Fernandes even suggested that the reason Ronaldo starts most of the games is because it’s he who decides how many minutes he plays, not coach Fernando Santos.
The discussion about Ronaldo getting special treatment is not particularly new, but always seemed to be a forbidden subject. It’s not anymore.
The change followed episodes which included leaving for holiday earlier than the rest of the squad, throwing the captain’s armband on the floor more than once and rarely speaking after failures like the 2020 Euros. The latter happened despite being the main leader and having his right-hand man – and best friend – Ricardo Regufe inside the dressing room.
For the first time in his career, Ronaldo is heading to the World Cup facing doubts over whether he still merits a place in the team.
“The Portuguese federation has never admitted to having any special treatment for him, although we’ve had indications that lead us to understand that it exists. But there you go: I don’t find it to be absolutely unusual,” Antonio Tadeia, a pundit for RTP who has covered Portugal since 1992, told BBC Sport.
“Obviously, I’m not defending that, and you’ve got stuff in the daily work that even the biggest stars have to do like the other players. But it would be a bit silly to think that a 39-year-old like Pepe or a 37-year-old like Cristiano will train the same way a 20-year-old does because that wouldn’t be normal.
“But then again, the fact that Santos said after the 2020 Euros exit that he had the support of Cristiano as if it were something essential for him to continue on his post didn’t sound well.
“It may have been a slip of the tongue or maybe that’s how things work. We cannot know that for sure, though.”
‘He plays however he wants’
In his past nine games for Portugal prior to the World Cup, Ronaldo has failed to score in eight of them, but, unlike what happened to other veteran players like Rui Patricio and Joao Moutinho, his starting spot has never been in danger.
Being arguably the country’s greatest-ever player makes it even more difficult for Santos to handle the situation.
“I believe that most of the Portuguese fans still look to Cristiano as the world’s best player, but then there’s also a significant fraction who question his status,” explains Tadeia.
“Many people share the idea that he plays a bit like however he wants. If he wants to leave the box, he leaves the box. If he wants to play wide open, he plays wide open. If he wants to start, he starts. If he wants to rest, he stays on the bench. If he wants to remain on the pitch, even though it’s advisable to replace him, he remains on the pitch.
“So because of all this, these fans have developed this perception that Cristiano has Fernando Santos in his hands and that Santos does whatever Cristiano wants him to do.
“I still think Cristiano can be very useful, but it would be important to find some balance on how to use him because he no longer has the same physical condition. The point here is whether he would be capable of understanding it.”
‘He has showed winning is not only a dream’
Regardless of all the controversy surrounding Ronaldo, one thing hasn’t changed in the Portugal camp: he’s always referred to as the world’s best player by his team-mates in every single press conference.
Having been around since 2003, the five-time Ballon d’Or winner is featuring at a record-equalling fifth World Cup.
He is the top-scoring player in men’s international football with 117 goals and is Europe’s most-capped male player, having made 191 appearances for Portugal.
He has been a key figure in the 2016 Euros and the 2019 Nations League titles, completely changing the way that Portuguese football is viewed abroad. Returning home from Qatar with the trophy will only enhance his legendary reputation.
“Before Cristiano, Portugal had never won a title in senior football, so he has raised the bar for future generations and showed them that achieving this is not just a dream, but something they can all do,” adds Tadeia.
“This will be his main legacy.”