As the final whistle blew in the ”Al Thumama” Stadium in Doha, Portugal’s players looked rattled. Some fell down on the pitch, others started crying. Cristiano Ronaldo shared a few moments with some of his teammates and immediately ran to the locker room, with the cameras inside the tunnel picking up his state of disbelief.
Covering his face and his tears, Ronaldo created another iconic image, one that also kicked off Qatar 2022, with him crying during the national anthem of Portugal. The circle was closed, albeit the reasons for crying were different. This time, Portugal was eliminated, after a 0-1 loss against Morocco and everything turned to dust.
There were likely the final moments of Cristiano Ronaldo, the player, appeared at the FIFA World Cup. A story that started 16 years ago, at Germany 2006, was quickly closing before our eyes. And it was not a happy ending.
But where will Portugal – a team loaded with talent in all positions and having a huge potential for the future – go from here?
The first question that needs to be answered is about the future of the national team coach, Fernando Santos. In the past 12 years, Santos has managed only the national team, first Greece, between 2010 and 2014 and then Portugal, as he could not say no to his native country.
It is hard to believe that the 68-year-old coach will try to extend his contract after an eight-year stay, where he won the UEFA EURO 2016 and the UEFA Nations League with Portugal.
Always under pressure, always the main target of criticism for his tactics, branded too defensive for a team brimming with talent in an attack like Portugal, Santos will likely end his tenure on his terms, especially after such a painful loss, where the European side started as huge favourites and could not produce the goods against Morocco.
“I don’t know if it was a failure. These issues of resigning, we did not talk about. I’ve been here since 2014, resignations are not part of my lexicon, nor of the president. We didn’t go that far, yes, the team has quality, we could have done better, the players worked a lot. There are days when a bit of luck is missing and today was such a case,” said Santos after the loss against Morocco.
However, if Santos wants to extend his stay, his contract is still valid until 2024, when he should have led Portugal at the UEFA EURO 2024. However, the pressure will be bigger and bigger, especially after he did not name Ronaldo in the starting lineup in the games against Switzerland and Chile.
It was clear that Portugal’s stalwart was not up to the task at this FIFA World Cup edition and he is missing a beat or two. But will Ronaldo still be there for the next tournaments?
With his excellent build and hunger for performance, he could make himself available. But either Santos or the next coach will have a conundrum on his hands in that case. What will Ronaldo do if he is not selected between the starters? Can you rebuild, or should one extend the expiration date of this generation?
Portugal looks well set up for the future, with Nuno Mendes, Ruben Dias, and Joao Cancelo in the defence, Bruno Fernandes, Bernardo Silva and Ruben Neves in the midfield, while Goncalo Ramos, Rafael Leao and Joao Felix cover the attack of the team.
Therefore, Portugal is still a menacing proposition for the next tournament, even if there is a change of mentality, with Santos’ position becoming increasingly under threat, as reports in Portugal say that decision has already been made and a replacement is now sought.
For a long time, Portugal has been underachiever, a team that looked set to dominate world football, after a painful loss in the final against Greece at the UEFA EURO 2004, until they did manage to secure the European trophy 12 years later.
That time, Portugal really played Santos-ball, a hermetic approach, without any spaces in defence, relying on some magic in attack. With such an interesting team in the future, it really begs the question whether the players will be free to roam and dominate opponents as they should do.
The bottom line, Portugal has many questions to answer and little time, as football moves faster and faster nowadays. But if they get them right, it will surely set up the foundation for success. The clock is ticking.