Irreplaceable Icon or Lingering Burden? The Ronaldo Debate Engulfs Portugal

Irreplaceable Icon or Lingering Burden? The Ronaldo Debate Engulfs Portugal
By: Gordon from

Bernardo Silva couldn’t help but laugh when asked about a prominent issue in Portuguese football.

“In the national team, when you’re all listening to the pre-match team talk, do you accept the tactical instructions right away, or sometimes react like, ‘Ronaldo, man, can’t it be another way?’” comedian and writer Ricardo Araujo Pereira joked during a show in March.

Though meant humorously – and promptly denied by the Manchester City midfielder, who clarified Ronaldo does not give orders – the question underscores the forward’s immense influence in the dressing room, a notion many in Portugal assume to be true.

Despite expectations that he would retire from international football after the last World Cup, Ronaldo remains a major force and is set to play in a record sixth European Championship this summer in Germany.

“I faced Ronaldo while coaching Everton in 2013,” Portugal manager Roberto Martinez told Canal 11. “For most players, when the body starts failing, the head accepts it. In his case, it seems to be the opposite. The body will only stop when the head says it has to stop.

“It’s incredible when a player of his age has the habits and desire of an 18-year-old. He has an elite-level mindset and no limits. He’s been with the national team for 20 years now. That’s unique.”

Despite being 39, Ronaldo has shown no intention of leaving the international stage.

The former Manchester United star has told Martinez his goal is to reach 250 Portugal caps. He currently has 207.

To achieve that, he will have to deal with growing criticism from fans back home who believe Portugal performs better without him.

This sentiment has followed both former coach Fernando Santos and now Martinez.

“Even considering everything Ronaldo represents, it doesn’t make any sense for him to be an undisputed starter anymore,” Sofia Oliveira, a football pundit for CNN Portugal, DAZN Portugal, and TSF radio, told BBC Sport.

“It’s also true that this transition would be a lot smoother if he realized himself that this role no longer suits him.

“It seems clear to me that his presence in the team conditions other players around him. Just look at their actions and you’ll see that sometimes they search for Ronaldo in contexts that don’t benefit the team. And then there’s the issue that he doesn’t want to spend much time without the ball, so he tracks back to areas occupied by other players, with his positional anarchy affecting them.”

'His impact would be bigger from the bench'

Even finishing Portugal’s perfect qualifying campaign as the second-top scorer behind Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku with 10 goals and being the country’s third-most used player with 725 minutes, behind only Ruben Dias and Bruno Fernandes, hasn't been enough for Ronaldo to end the debate.

It doesn’t help that the only game he missed during the Euro qualifiers – a 9-0 win over Luxembourg – is considered the best of the Martinez era so far.

However, the Spanish coach has avoided the controversy surrounding the Al-Nassr forward, asserting instead that Portugal are “prepared to win without him.”

In the three preparation games for the Euros, Ronaldo only participated in Tuesday's win over the Republic of Ireland, where he earned praise not only for his two goals but also for displaying a more team-oriented attitude.

After the 3-0 win over Ireland, Ronaldo stated, "Regardless of whether I play or not, I'll respect the coach's decisions."

“Honestly, I believe his impact would be much bigger coming from the bench,” Oliveira commented.

“And I don’t just refer to his goals and assists because we all know he’s capable of scoring against the likes of the Czech Republic and Georgia. I mean his overall performance because what we’ve seen many times is Ronaldo playing as many minutes as possible and ultimately finding the net, but, if we look closely at his performances, the number of his negative actions often outweighs the positive ones.”

Portugal’s leading sports newspaper A Bola has even suggested that the wrong question is being asked of Martinez.

Instead of questioning whether the Euro 2016 winners play better without their captain, it argues the question should be: "When is the right time for the norm to be Ronaldo’s absence rather than his presence?"

Fernandes is the new main man

This is the first time Portugal have won every qualification game for a major tournament.

They did so impressively, scoring more goals (36) and conceding fewer (two) than any other nation, while displaying exciting football, especially in the latter stages of the campaign.

Their group included Slovakia, Luxembourg, Iceland, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Liechtenstein, which has led to a sense that this team has not been truly tested.

A 2-1 friendly defeat by Croatia earlier this month served as a reality check, being their first test against a strong side and resulting in a poor performance.

“There have been games where Portugal frankly didn’t play well and yet ended up thrashing their opponents. And it’s exactly for this reason that they are candidates to win the Euros again - because of the unbelievable amount of individual talent this team has. It’s their best generation ever,” said Oliveira.

To return home with the European Championship trophy, they will need Bruno Fernandes at his best.

The midfield maestro may not have had his best season with Manchester United, but he has become Portugal’s main man under Martinez, with six goals and eight assists in 10 qualifiers.

Perhaps most importantly, Fernandes has shown that he and Manchester City midfielder Bernardo Silva can play well together for their country.

“That’s arguably the best news we’ve had so far. The worst is the total lack of use of Vitinha,” added Oliveira.