Even when it’s not about him, it’s about him. Cristiano Ronaldo was dropped from Portugal’s team by coach Fernando Santos, either because of his behaviour after their last game or because he’s simply not that good anymore.
Whatever the ultimate reasoning, the feeling that many in Portugal – and, indeed, Manchester – have had for a while that the team would be better without CR7 was more than vindicated as his replacement, Goncalo Ramos, scored a hat trick to take Santos’ men to the quarter final with a 6-1 win over Switzerland.
Ronaldo, who had been criticised in the build-up by his own coach for his conduct at the tournament, was picture walking off the field alone as his teammates celebrated with Portuguese supporters. He had clapped the fans on his own, but exited before the rest of his team arrived.
Ramos was exceptional. This was his first start at international level, but the 21-year-old Benfica star has 14 in 21 this season and is bang in form. He had, before today, played 33 minutes of international football.
He could not have dreamed that his full debut would go this well. The last player to score a hat trick on World Cup debut was Miroslav Klose, against Saudi Arabia in 2002. He went alright, ending up as the all-time leading scorer in World Cups.
Beyond the ridiculous unlikelihood of such a debut – and such a debut conspicuously replacing their greatest player in your nation’s history – was the sheer breadth of skill in his goals.
The first, smashed beyond Yann Sommer before he knew what had happened, was an sublime finish, all power and venom, while the third, a dink over Yann Sommer that showed that Ramos had finesse to match.
And the second was perhaps the most emblematic, a near-post dart and outside foot flick, the kind that Ronaldo used to score regularly but simply doesn’t anymore. There might be a lesson in there.
Portugal were faster, more coherent and more dangerous than they have looked in a long time. “I think it’s quite obvious the best performance of the World Cup so far,” said Craig Foster on SBS. “This is an unbelievable performance right throughout. How much did they concede in terms of chances?
“Credit to Santos. He’s done an amazing job. It’s a huge call. I think it was reasonably obvious to everyone, including most of Portugal, that he just wasn’t contributing as much and that what Ronaldo has to give now at club and national level is off the bench. This is some of the best football I’ve watched this tournament.”
Ramos was mobile in the middle – beyond his goals, he also laid on Rafa Guerreiro for another – and allowed Bruno Fernandes and Joao Felix to show their best performances of the tournament creatively, with one and two assists respectively.
Because it isn’t entirely a young man’s game, the 39-year-old Pepe also crashed in a first half header from a Fernandes corner. Rafa Leao stuck in a curler with seconds to play that completed the rout.
Switzerland had no answer. They looked superb in getting past Serbia in the final group game but were unable to cope with the constant movement in front of their defensive line.
The Nati have made an art-form out of frustrating teams with better individuals, but they were nowhere near the Portuguese on this showing.
They got a second half consolation through Manual Akanji – their first goal in the knockout stages since 1954 – but it was a mere footnote on one of the most surprising tales of this tournament.
Ramos was eventually withdrawn, and with the Qatari locals clamouring for the spurned star, Ronaldo did come on as a replacement.
It was a first for the man with all the records: having started 20 of the previous 21 available matches in World Cups, with only one incidence – when he was rested against Mexico with Portugal through in 2006 – where he was not the first name on the teamsheet, this was the first time he had come on as a sub in the World Cup.
Since debuting against Kazakhstan in 2003, he has scored 118 goals in 194 games. He nearly made it 119 in 195, but an offside flag robbed him, and the crowd, of the moment.
It was for the best: the moments, all three of them, belonged to Ramos.