Seventy percent of Portuguese fans can’t be wrong. In a widely publicized poll by the sports newspaper, those who voted to remove Cristiano Ronaldo from the top 11 bolafulfilled their wishes. And if that’s any indication that Portuguese football is ready to turn its back on the greatest goalscorer of his generation, it’s confirmed that his successor, Switzerland, scored a hat-trick in a 6-1 decisive win and made it to the World Cup quarterfinals.
Ask the previously unaware Goncalo Ramos, and he certainly praised a living and almost still playing legend—like the rest of Portugal’s next generation. But in Lusail, on the occasion of his first international start, he also came to bury him. The Benfica striker not only scored three goals, but also conceded another six goals and should be described as his debut performance of this tournament. Date. What it means for the man he replaced before facing Morocco in the last eight is unclear, but one thing is certain: Portugal is a better side in the absence of Ronaldo.
After all, that was one of the vexing questions of the group stages – like Manchester United, could Fernando Santos’ group of talented young attackers backed by well-established elite playmakers reach new heights without needing to house a grumpy 37-year-old? does it just serve to slow them down? It’s the cover Ronaldo needed to make the boldest call of his 35-year coaching career after being replaced in their loss to South Korea last Friday. He took it.
At the kick-off, there was still a saving grace for Ronaldo: His lack of successor’s pedigree meant that he wouldn’t miss the chance to take his place. Ramos may be the current Primeira Liga top scorer, but he only scored seven goals in 29 appearances for Benfica last season. His first Portugal meeting came in September, and before last night his international career had totaled just 36 minutes. Still, he only needed 17 to beat Ronaldo in goals in the qualifying stages of a World Cup.
This was also a hit. As soon as Ramos turned on his heels inside the penalty area to clear Joao Felix’s pass into goal, the 21-year-old struck a hit that found the thinnest gaps between goalkeeper Yann Sommer and his close-post, and then rose resolutely. the roof of the network. His sheer speed drew a sharp sigh from most of the 83,720 people inside and actually sucked the air out of Lusail Stadium, finally returning with a roar of appreciation.
If Ramos’ spectacular shot was a symbol of Portugal’s future, there was still room for some relics from the past. This 39-year-old World Cup will surely be the last major action of Pepe’s international career, but the battle-hardened centre-back still had enough of him to become this tournament’s oldest goalscorer since Roger Milla. Bruno Fernandes’ excellent corner kick invited Pepe to rise unopposed and go home to a free header.
Still, this was a night for the new generation. At the start of the second half, just ahead of Joao Cancelo, Santos’ other big pick call, Diogo Dalot, defeated Ruben Vargas to the sideline and sent a low cross into the six-yard penalty area. Ramos was there to meet it, his brash finish sailing between Sommer’s legs for the third. He then finished fourth as part of a spectacular team move that started with Felix and ended with left-back Raphael Guerreiro entering the game.
Switzerland pulled back one corner, Manuel Akanji stepped in from the far post. And yet, even though it had arrived before the hour mark, it was destined to be only a consolation. Portugal was playing too well to allow Murat Yakin’s team to re-enter the game. The crowd began calling for Ronaldo to be introduced, but Santos resisted, waiting for Ramos to score a hat-trick. A blow to Sommer’s outstretched leg made him the youngest player to score three goals in a World Cup qualifying draw since Pele in 1958.
Ronaldo finally arrived with just over a quarter of an hour to go, and the crowd demanded that he act. He believed he did so by diving behind a strained Swiss defense of late, only to have the flag raised as he walked away to celebrate. Still, being nearly the only player in the opposing half, he started off a good few yards offside. A sixth would instead be splendidly added by Rafael Leao, another of the emerging group of Portuguese offensive talents. Individually, it is almost certain that they will not be able to match or surpass the great successes Ronaldo has achieved. But together, who knows what’s possible.