Ronaldo, Portugal’s catalyst for leap to the elite

Now 37, Cristiano Ronaldo has been called up by Portugal for the fifth FIFA World Cup of his career. The Manchester United forward is much more than just his country’s all-time leading scorer. To say that CR7 is a one-man inflection point in the history of his national team would be no exaggeration.
In the 90 years that elapsed between Portugal’s first match and the international debut of Madeira’s most famous son, the national team appeared at just three World Cup and three UEFA EURO competitions. Before Ronaldo came along, Portugal’s finest hour at the World Cup was third place at England 1966.
Other high points in their footballing history came in 1989 and 1991, when the country’s youngsters won back-to-back FIFA U-20 World Cups. And in 2001, Luis Figo, the last big Portuguese star before the Ronaldo era, was named FIFA World Player of the Year.
Though notable, those episodic achievements were not enough by themselves to thrust Portugal into the elite of international football. That all changed when Ronaldo stepped on to the scene in the early 2000s.

How it all began
Since Ronaldo won his first cap, in a friendly against Kazakhstan on 20 August 2003, Portugal have never missed a major competition, appearing at five World Cups and five EUROs in a row. With the No 7 in their ranks, the Portuguese have gone from mere participants to genuine trophy contenders.
The ‘Ronaldo generation’ finished fourth at Germany 2006, where they came close to equalling the country’s best-ever World Cup campaign. And in more recent years, they have won two major competitions, EURO 2016 and the inaugural UEFA Nations League in 2019.
Aside from those team prizes, Portugal’s star man has also amassed an unprecedented collection of individual accolades, among them five FIFA Best FIFA Men’s Player awards and four European Golden Shoes. He is also the highest scorer in the history of the UEFA Champions League and international football, and Real Madrid’s all-time top scorer.
In an interview he gave last week to mark his 50th birthday, Figo spoke of the legacy his successor as Portugal’s leading player has built. As the former Barcelona and Real Madrid man explained, before Ronaldo came along Portugal would often go out on the pitch with a negative mindset, intent merely on avoiding defeat, such was their lack of confidence and ambition.
That all changed when CR7 came on board. Despite representing a country of only ten million inhabitants, the team no longer had an inferiority complex when up against the likes of France – their victims in the EURO 2016 final – or the Netherlands, the team they beat to win that Nations League title. Ronaldo has had a notable part to play in shaping that winning mentality and in improving the physical fitness of his team-mates, helping to create a new generation of players utterly committed to the Portugal cause.

A final farewell?
It is alongside those players – among them established internationals such as central defender Ruben Dias, attacking midfielder Bernardo Silva (both of Manchester City) and Manchester United midfielder Bruno Fernandes – that Ronaldo is now preparing for what might be his last World Cup.
The man who changed the face of Portuguese football will make his first outing at Qatar 2022 against Ghana in Doha on 24 November. Portugal’s subsequent opponents in Group H will be Uruguay and Korea Republic.

Portugal before Ronaldo

World Cup: Three appearances from 17 editions
EURO: Three appearances from 11 editions

Portugal after Ronaldo
World Cup: Five appearances out of five
EURO: Five appearances out of five

Ronaldo interview is not a distraction for Portugal, says coach Santos

Portugal coach Fernando Santos said Cristiano Ronaldo’s explosive interview has not been a distraction in the changing room as they prepare for a friendly against Nigeria in Lisbon today, the team’s last match before they travel to Qatar for the World Cup.
Asked if Ronaldo’s comments about his club Manchester United had had an impact on his team as they prepare for the World Cup, Santos said what happened with his highest profile player has nothing to do with the national squad.
“The player decided to give an interview as many others have,” Santos told a news conference yesterday in Lisbon.
“It’s a personal interview, very personal actually, and we have to respect that.
“Isn’t Cristiano Ronaldo a free man?… It was his decision and we have to understand and respect it.”
Santos said he had not heard any players mentioning the interview since they reported for duty on Monday.
“The only thing we talk about is the preparation for Qatar. It
(the interview) does not affect us at all,” Santos said.
He added that Ronaldo was recovering from a stomach problem and would miss Wednesday’s practice session and Thursday’s friendly with Nigeria.
“He is in his room resting and recovering. He won’t practice and won’t be ready for tomorrow’s game either,” coach Santos said.
Benfica’s 19-year-old defender Antonio Silva could be in the starting team against Nigeria ahead of Manchester City’s Ruben Dias.
“He will play but I’m still deciding if it will be from the start,” Santos said.
“I have full confidence in the group. Not only Ronaldo but all the players are very focused.
“The players have given me absolute guarantee – not that I need it – of the total focus and ambition they have for this World Cup.”
Portugal are in World Cup Group H with Ghana, Uruguay and South Korea.