Portuguese newspapers this week have been obsessed with the story of Cristiano Ronaldo buying the £230,000 model of the Aston Martin which appears in the James Bond film ‘No Time to Die’.
None of them have ventured to suggest that the player, much like Daniel Craig – the actor who drove the DBS Superleggera – might be about to step away from his final stage.
It is, however, a real possibility. The next 10 days could be the 37-year-old’s last in international football, given the challenge Portugal face in the World Cup play-offs.
Cristiano Ronaldo is now seen as a ‘political issue’ for club and country
Ronaldo, whose career for the Selecao spanned four World Cups, leads the nation to the semi-final play-off against Turkey at Porto’s Estadio do Dragao on Thursday and, if they win, will likely face the mother of all knockouts against Italy, five days later.
The affection for Ronaldo runs deeper than ever in his home country, where ensuring he gets a World Cup swansong in Qatar seems more of a concern than the 2016 European champions getting there Actually.
But while it’s blasphemous to say so too publicly, the question of whether Portugal are better off without him has been circulating for over a year and certainly isn’t backing down.
There are suggestions that Portugal could actually be a better team without Ronaldo
“It’s almost like a political issue, something that will require a summit to reach an agreement on the strategy for preparing Ronaldo’s retirement from the national team,” said Sergio Pires of Mais Futebol, hedging his bets.
“I find it controversial to say that a team performs better without its best player, especially when you don’t have a big record of games played under those circumstances.”
Yes, the sample size is small. But Portugal haven’t lost a game without Ronaldo in the squad since September 2014.
And they hammered Croatia 4-1 without him in a Nations League game in September 2020, which many Portuguese journalists considered the best performance in eight years that coach Fernando Santos has been at the helm.
The stars of the day – Bruno Fernandes, Bernardo Silva, Diogo Jota and Joao Felix – confirmed the opinion of many that this is the best collection of individuals ever assembled in a Portuguese team.
“They are brilliant individuals, not to mention our defenders like Pepe, Joao Cancelo and Ruben Dias,” said another source, who has been watching the squad closely.
Despite his quality and experience, Ronaldo also experienced some frustration at United
“But it’s different when Cristiano is playing. Cristiano is an important player but the players all want to play for him and all are aware that they have to pass the ball to him.
“We have a saying here that goes ‘the team is Ronaldo plus 10’.” The team is more relaxed without him. The team is better off without him.
It resembles the divisive picture seen this season at Manchester United, where Ronaldo is a much more popular leader than captain Harry Maguire, but some of the young players are struggling to live with his standards on the pitch.
But Santos was reluctant to let him and other elders go. Joao Moutinho is still starting at 35, while many believe Porto’s Otavio is a better player than the Wolves midfielder. Atletico Madrid’s Joao Felix doesn’t always start. Bruno Fernandes sometimes operated on the left, by no means his natural domain.
It’s against this backdrop that many wonder why Ronaldo is still so fundamental to Santos. However, the 67-year-old is not going to change his plan now.
“I don’t think any team in the world can do better when their best player isn’t there,” he said of Ronaldo.
This coach has always been seen as a pragmatist and as predictable as Portugal can be with Ronaldo in the lead, his math is simple. It increases the chances of scoring when Portugal are in the final third.
Portugal coach Fernando Santos still sees Ronaldo as a fundamental part of his team
Turkey should be ruled out this week. Their terrible European campaign last summer suggested that they had nothing to fear. But the Italians are a different proposition.
“I spoke with him and we joked about the possible Portugal-Italy game,” said defender Leonardo Bonucci. “Cristiano knows he’s going to take a beating.”
Ronaldo’s hat-trick against Spurs last Saturday made headlines in the Portuguese press. “History factor,” Correio da Manha said. This performance, just as he was being written off, reinforces Santos’ belief that his talisman will provide the X factor.
Santos said: “We have to win. Nothing else matters. We must participate in the World Cup for our people.