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Portugal’s post-Cristiano Ronaldo future looks bright

A new era of Portuguese football began on Tuesday as they thrashed Switzerland 6-1 in their World Cup Round of 16 encounter.

A hat-trick from young striker Goncalo Ramos capped a brilliant team display that once again saw the likes of Bruno Fernandes and Bernardo Silva carve the opposition apart. Joao Felix was again excellent from the wing, but this time he had a striker to match his play.

The lineup isn’t even particularly young, with the average age of the starting XI about 27 (rounding up). Goalscorer Pepe is 39 years old and still starting in defense for the team. The new era of Portuguese football is not just about the next generation of talented players coming in, it is about the team evolving past the need for its longtime icon and all-time leading goal scorer, Cristiano Ronaldo.

The famous No. 7 has been the focal point of Portugal’s tactics, hopes, and dreams since the mid-2000s when he rose to prominence with Manchester United and the national team. However, apart from a trip to the semi-finals in 2006 alongside aging greats, his World Cup campaigns haven’t gone past the Round of 16 stage until now. And that happened with him watching from the sideline until the game was well decided.

Pre-tournament, Portugal played a friendly against Nigeria without Ronaldo, and ran rampant in a 4-0 win. One friendly without historically their best player may not say a lot, but a year of matches does. Until his penalty against Ghana in the opening match, Ronaldo hadn’t scored for Portugal since a hat-trick (which included two penalties) against Luxembourg in World Cup Qualifiers in October 2021. In that time, many of their performances were achieved by finding ways to play around him.

It became necessary due to his severe dip in form over that time, and the result has been a positive one. The ball moves smoothly in attack, with players capable of creating from multiple positions. The full-backs have especially been a positive for the team, with Diogo Dalot emerging to play opposite either Joao Cancelo or Nuno Mendes.

Suddenly, a future without their top scorer became clearer.

Ronaldo was dropped from the starting lineup after a poor group stage, but most notably a heated exchange with staff and an opposing player as he was subbed off in a loss to South Korea. It’s not the first time he’s expressed disrespect to others in the footballing world, but as he learned earlier this season he is now no longer immune to punishment as a result.

When Ronaldo refused to go on as a substitute and walked out on Manchester United during a 2-0 win over Tottenham Hotspur, he was sent to train with the reserves and dropped from the squad ahead of a big clash with Chelsea. Partly due to necessity because of injuries, he returned to the fold and once again started matches after manager Erik ten Hag gave him an olive branch. He then proceeded to burn that branch just before the World Cup by giving a childish interview to Piers Morgan and The Sun, blaming anyone but himself for his failed second stint at Old Trafford. The club responded by terminating his contract.

Now, without a club and without the safety of his spot up top for Portugal to save him, Ronaldo is again witnessing his own team excel in his absence. And it’s at least partly due directly to his absence as well. The team didn’t have to play around its forward, in fact Portugal could actually rely on the forward’s contributions to team moves.

Ramos’ goals may or may not be the beginning of another great individual’s career, and it’s unfair to judge someone’s ability entirely from one game. What it does support, however, is that if someone is there to do the striker’s job, Portugal can thrive and deal immense damage.

The first goal took a lot of skill to finish, turning with very little space and firing quickly from a difficult angle, but the second and third were proper No. 9 goals. Ramos provided the team with end production for attacking moves. It’s simple, but it’s not something Ronaldo does well anymore.

Fernando Santos now has a decision to make. It was likely that he was simply making a statement to Ronaldo after his outburst (huh maybe that doesn’t work anymore), but with the team clearly playing better without the once great superstar he has to consider what is best for Portugal’s chances of advancing. Perhaps by accident, he discovered the future without Ronaldo might be scarier for the opposition than it is for Portugal.

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