Cristiano Ronaldo’s future is uncertain after Portugal sacrificed the European Championships

A grand old man of Portuguese football was in tears. Not again? Actually, not him. This time it was Pepe, not Cristiano Ronaldo. The tears felt less self-pitying than they had four days earlier. This time, a game had actually finished; with it, Portugal’s Euro 2024. This time, the missed penalty came from another altogether, Joao Felix striking the foot of the post in a shootout when everyone else was immaculate. France advanced. Portugal left a tournament they might have won without scoring in their last three games.

Cue international retirement? “There are no individual decisions at this point,” said manager Roberto Martinez. “Everything is too raw. We are just suffering.” He had been asked about Ronaldo; Pepe, at 41, is older still. Logically, his time should have been up years ago and yet a middle-aged man, a couple of shaky moments against Slovenia aside, has been as good as any central defender in Euro 2024.

The signs of decline are more acute in Ronaldo. He has confirmed his sixth European Championships will be his last. Yet, in itself that left open the possibility that his sights are set on the 2026 World Cup; a sixth for him, a 12th major tournament. And yet Euro 2024 was not one too many, but two.

He was dropped in the 2022 World Cup; it meant he was not the fundamental cause of defeat to Morocco. This time, Portugal can trace their elimination to a needless decision to prioritise Ronaldo above all others. His first European Championships came in 2004, when their original golden generation of Luis Figo and Rui Costa were in their thirties. Twenty years on, the sense is that Portugal have their best ever group. They are overflowing with attacking talent.

Pepe was in tears after Portugal’s defeat, but it felt different to Ronaldo’s (AFP via Getty Images)Pepe was in tears after Portugal’s defeat, but it felt different to Ronaldo’s (AFP via Getty Images)

Pepe was in tears after Portugal’s defeat, but it felt different to Ronaldo’s (AFP via Getty Images)

Yet they have no goals in 364 minutes. Ronaldo has played 240 minutes in five days. He has played 486 minutes over five games, the most of any outfield player. And yet he has given Portugal an impotent, static forward line. He has carried on chalking up the shots – 23, the most of any footballer in Euro 2024 – but none of them went in. Most didn’t get close.

His tally of 130 international goals remains remarkable; it also remains 130. He hasn’t scored in his last nine tournament matches; his only strike in the 2022 World Cup was a penalty against Ghana. Since then, Ronaldo has tried to claim a goal Bruno Fernandes scored, missed a Portugal goal – albeit a Samet Akaydin own goal – because he was too busy berating Joao Cancelo and dissolved into tears with 15 minutes of a game to go because Jan Oblak saved his spot kick.

There was, of course, the strangely selfless assist for Fernandes against Turkey, which Martinez said should be shown in training academies in Portugal and around the world. Yet Ronaldo, the man who propelled Portugal forward time and again, now holds them back. Ramos, scorer of a World Cup hat-trick, got 24 minutes in Germany, Diogo Jota, the master of movement, 97, none of them against France. Francisco Conceicao sparkled in cameos but Portugal were not as dynamic as they could have been.

And in the decisive game against France, the indefatigable Fernandes went off 47 minutes before the shootout, the sprinter Rafael Leao 15 minutes before it. Ronaldo stayed on, as if his manager has a clause in his contract forbidding him from replacing the country’s greatest ever player. Ronaldo and Martinez has been a strange alliance. Maybe, as there was a time when the Spaniard’s striking options consisted of Jason Scotland and Mauro Boselli, followed by Franco di Santo and Conor Sammon, he relishes the chance to pick the man with more goals than anyone else in the history of football.

Ronaldo has not aided Portugal at Euro 2024 (Getty Images)Ronaldo has not aided Portugal at Euro 2024 (Getty Images)

Ronaldo has not aided Portugal at Euro 2024 (Getty Images)

Yet the timing of his appointment, after Ronaldo’s hubristic World Cup, when he had moved to Saudi Arabia, with Portugal pitted in a group that almost guaranteed qualification for Euro 2024, offered an ideal opportunity to move on. Martinez did not, and it felt as if Portugal sacrificed their European Championships in the vain hope Ronaldo could turn back time.

If playing Ronaldo meant they could not press and had less movement, he had to bring goals. He did not. His recent record has been full of them: but only two of the 12 he has scored at international level since the World Cup have been against countries ranked in the top 59. Ronaldo may average a goal a game in Saudi Arabia, but his ineffectual displays in Europe this summer illustrate the weakness of that league; N’Golo Kante can still buzz around after a year in the Middle East, but the Frenchman is a freak.

And Ronaldo is 39. His peak was between 2006 and 2018, now six years ago. He still managed to top score in Euro 2020. He didn’t score at all in Euro 2024. The harsh conclusion may be that, while it took penalties to knock them out, Portugal could not have won Euro 2024 with Ronaldo, but could have done without.

It amounts to a sad farewell for the record scorer and appearance maker in the European Championships. Perhaps not its finest player – Michel Platini and Marco van Basten have done more to win a tournament, although not possessing the same longevity. But Ronaldo has been the constant, since the days of Figo. It was somewhere where he could guarantee he was not upstaged by Lionel Messi.

But he may have gone on too long. Martinez was trying to deliver a compliment to a team he thought deserved to beat France. Yet his words could be read in a different light. He said: “The players show what Portuguese football is.” In Euro 2024, it looked like an is an exercise in pandering to Ronaldo’s ego.

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