enter image description here
Ronaldo and the Rest: Is It Time for Portugal to Bid Farewell to Their Top Scorer?

Let's discuss Cristiano Ronaldo's future with the Portuguese national team.

Portugal needed a penalty shootout to defeat Slovenia and reach the quarterfinals of EURO 2024 after 120 goalless minutes. Diogo Costa's outstanding performance in the shootout should have been the main talking point, but everyone was focused on Cristiano Ronaldo. And they continued talking about him after Portugal lost to France in the quarterfinals, again in a penalty shootout.

Initially, Ronaldo was criticized for seizing the opportunity to play in what is likely his last European Championship. Throughout EURO 2024, Cristiano was blamed for stalling his team's attacks. The Al Nassr forward is already 39 years old. It would be almost supernatural if he were single-handedly winning matches at this stage of his career. The problem is that he is still treated as the most talented player on the team. He was for a long time, but not anymore.

His desperate desire to score has always been evident. Ronaldo has always been passionate on the field, sometimes overly emotional, leading to unpleasant situations. Cristiano's journey to EURO seemed like a new level of determination, followed by subsequent disappointment. He ended the tournament with 23 shots on goal and an expected goals (xG) tally of 2.8 but he didn't score once. Ronaldo topped the list of players with the most shots without a goal at EURO.

The story of free kicks is a separate topic. Eight of Ronaldo's 23 shots were against Slovenia, half from free kicks. No player has taken more than four free kicks in a single game at the Euro or World Cup since Gheorghe Hagi's match against Sweden at the 1994 World Cup (5 shots). Ronaldo has scored just one goal from 60 free kicks in significant tournaments, a conversion rate of 1.7%.

This isn't an attempt to undermine Cristiano's free-kick abilities. It's important to remember that for a time—toward the end of his period at Manchester United and some time at Real Madrid—few scored more from long range than Ronaldo. However, it must also be acknowledged that Cristiano is no longer the player he once was, and this statistic suggests he may no longer be the best option for free kicks. If something isn't working, you can simply share the ball with a teammate, right? But it's not so easy to do when you've been the center of attention for so many years.

Looking at all Ronaldo has achieved, and how often he has been the hero in his career, it's understandable why he reacts so emotionally to failures. But this happens in football, and it's normal. Cristiano is a person whose best years are behind him. But, again, accepting this fact is not easy. Many criticized Ronaldo and even mocked him after he cried over missing a penalty against Slovenia. But few understood what was going through the mind of someone who might be playing in his last major tournament.

Had Cristiano scored that penalty, he would have become the oldest goalscorer in EURO history and the only player to score in six European Championships. Maybe none of this crossed his mind; it was about "making people happy." But knowing Ronaldo's character, it's hard to believe he didn't think about this record. The problem is that Cristiano has to be the focal point of everything in the Portuguese team when he plays. Everything has to revolve around him, and the team is primarily set up to create chances for him, even when finishing becomes an issue.

Most of the time, Portugal resorted to crossing. In some matches, the number of crosses was record-breaking. The 31 crosses from open play against Slovenia were the second-highest after 37 between the Czech Republic and Georgia. Given the abilities of the Portuguese team in other aspects, it's fair to assume they could play more subtly if they weren't working solely for Ronaldo up front. This also reflects the questionable approach of coach Roberto Martinez. Suppose you continue playing with the 39-year-old Cristiano in the starting lineup. Wouldn't you take the opportunity to rest him in the third round after winning the group? But no, Ronaldo always plays.

Martinez said it made more sense to play Cristiano to keep him in shape and not leave him without a game for six days. On one hand, this makes sense, but for Goncalo Ramos, it was likely a blow not to start even in a match that didn't have much significance. Those 24 minutes against Georgia remain the only ones for the PSG forward at EURO 2024. Ronaldo was an essential player for Portugal in the qualifiers for the European Championship. However, 6 of his 10 goals in qualifying were against teams like Liechtenstein, Iceland, and Luxembourg. In contrast, Ramos' goal stats in Ligue 1, scoring every 129 minutes in the 2023/24 season, were also impressive.

There were many reasons to believe that Ronaldo, who hadn't scored a non-penalty goal in his last 12 World Cup and European Championship matches, would start against France in the quarterfinals, meaning everything would still depend solely on him. Judging by the matches against Slovenia and France, such a plan seems risky. Relying solely on an aging forward in the future is even riskier. After Belgium, Martinez joined another good team with great potential. But realizing this potential requires making bold decisions.

Published by Patrick Jane