Cristiano Ronaldo has claimed another world record but when do Portugal move on

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It was in the fading light of a Lisbon evening when The Man Who Couldn’t Retire emerged from the tunnel, looked up at the stands and prepared to add another world record to his portfolio.

Within the next couple of hours, he had tried whatever he could to show a devoted audience of Portugal fans why he still likes to be known as Cristiano Ronaldo, superstar.

It was the night of his 197th international cap and the scale of that achievement cannot be overstated when it is more than any other male player, worldwide, in the history of the sport.

Ronaldo has taken the record from the altogether less famous Bader Al-Mutawa of Kuwait. Ever the showman, he proceeded to score two goals in a freewheeling 4-0 win over Liechtenstein and might eventually be credited with a hat-trick given Joao Cancelo’s shot for the opener flicked off him inside the penalty area. If so, that would be 121 goals for Ronaldo in a Portugal shirt.

His 198th cap will follow against Luxembourg on Sunday, a nation against whom he has scored nine times. The next cap will come against Bosnia and Herzegovina on June 17 and three days later in Iceland, Ronaldo will become the first 200-cap footballer, 64 years since England’s Billy Wright became the original 100-cap man.

It ended with Roberto Martinez, Portugal’s new manager, talking about a “new cycle” and how Ronaldo’s unwavering commitment makes him an essential part of it.

All of which might come as a surprise if you remember Ronaldo’s tearstained exit from the World Cup, when polls in Portuguese newspapers called for his removal from the team and, in their final two games, the unthinkable happened: Ronaldo suffered the ignominy of being downgraded to a substitute.

Portugal lost to Morocco in the quarter-finals. Ronaldo made a bolt for the tunnel rather than allowing the world to watch his distress and, the following weekend, Lionel Messi lifted the trophy for Argentina in a pretty convincing blow for any debate about who really is The Greatest.

Still, though, Ronaldo seems willing to prolong the argument, even at a time when most people would reasonably construe his move from Manchester United to Al Nassr of Saudi Arabia as the sign of a man winding down (and getting stupendously rich).

One poll in the run-up to Portugal’s latest match was organised jointly by the broadsheet Jornal de Negocios, the tabloid Correio da Manha, the television channel CMTV and the sports daily newspaper Record. And, knowing the man in question, he will probably be affronted that only 55.6 per cent wanted him to continue being called up.

Almost one in four people (24.4 per cent) wanted him to be removed from consideration. The other voters said they did not know or had no real preference, but it has prompted lively debate in Portugal, with Ronaldo’s supporters getting huffy about the perceived lack of appreciation.

Carlos Carvalhal, in particular, has seemed prepared to shout down anyone who might dare suggest it is time to usher in a new era without Cristiano.

“People are ungrateful,” said Carvalhal, who has coached in Portugal, Turkey, the Premier League and is in charge of Celta Vigo in Spain. “He’s one of the greatest players of all time and he has always been proud to play for Portugal. This is perhaps the first time he needs our support and many turn their back on him and just criticise him. They should be ashamed.”

As it turned out, Martinez has not changed a huge amount since taking the job, calling up 23 of the 26 players who played in the World Cup. His story will be interesting to follow (another poll by the same four media outlets had 42 per cent deciding he would do worse than Fernando Santos, the previous manager) and don’t forget he had been accused of being too reticent to freshen up Belgium’s national team.

Nobody should be too surprised by the pro-Ronaldo lobby, though, when we are also coming up to the 20th anniversary of the 1-0 win over Albania when he replaced Luis Figo as a second-half substitute to win his first Portugal cap, aged 18.

To visit Lisbon is to be reminded how the people here, for the most part, want to think the best of him.

Ronaldo’s face stares back from shop window displays — not just the sports shops, either. Small boys practise his goal celebration outside the Estadio Jose Alvalade. At least one lookalike could be seen in the almost vertiginous banks of green seats.

Ronaldo launches into his trademark celebration after scoring against Liechtenstein at the Estadio Jose Alvalade on Thursday (Photo: Jose Manuel Alvarez/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)

It was Lisbon that became Ronaldo’s home, at the age of 12, when he moved from Funchal on the island of Madeira to start his new life in the youth system of Sporting Lisbon. He has a penthouse apartment close to Eduardo VII Park and his own hotel, the Pestana CR7, on Rua do Comercio, as well as a bistro where they serve a cod dish named after himself: “The GOAT”, i.e. the Greatest of All Time (rumours are unfounded that the CR7 waiters flap their arms around if they are dissatisfied with your tip).

And, yes, there is plenty to admire about his durability, whatever you might think about his occasional strops and the circumstances in which he left Old Trafford to sign a £3.4million-a-week ($4.2m) contract in Saudi Arabia.

His latest achievement, just for starters.

How can you not be impressed that the five-time Ballon d’Or winner is still adding to a CV the size of a telephone directory? It is a triumph for longevity, for dedication, for 24/7 obsession. At 38, Ronaldo simply refuses to conform to the view that he might eventually outstay his welcome. “As you know, I like to break records,” he said. “Being the most-capped player in history, I have to confess that leaves me quite proud — in addition to being the best scorer ever for the national teams.”

Ronaldo went on to say he had not set himself any targets. Nobody, however, seemed convinced. He sounded very much like a man who intended to be at Euro 2024. “I will always join the national team when I’m called up. My motivation is the same now as it was my first time.”

Fair play, as always, for backing himself to write his happy ending. Few in the Portuguese media, it seems, want to challenge his position and the crowd in Lisbon could be guaranteed to cheer his name louder than any other player. They even applauded a pretty startling miss early on.

It was difficult, though, to head away from this happy scene without thinking there are still a number of unanswered questions.

Is he now the guy who scores against mediocre opposition in Saudi Arabia and boosts his statistics against teams of Liechtenstein’s calibre, 198th out of 211 teams in FIFA’s world rankings? Or should we still consider him capable of troubling the most accomplished defences, contrary to what was seen in the World Cup and the verdict of Erik ten Hag, United’s manager?

Last weekend, football news outlets throbbed with the news Ronaldo had fizzed in a 30-yard free kick in his latest assignment for Al Nassr. It was his ninth goal in 10 games for his new club, including four in one match and three in another.

It was when you analysed the goal properly, however, that you learned more about his new working life. The defensive wall for Abha, fifth from bottom of the Saudi Pro League, was made up of three players. All three turned their backs and jumped in the air as Ronaldo took aim. The shot went through an obliging gap and the goalkeeper let it go under his hand. Ronaldo collected his latest award for Saudi Arabia’s Goal of the Week.

“I will not say the Arab league is like the Premier League, I would be lying,” said Ronaldo. “But it’s a very competitive league. It has surprised me. I’m sure that in the next few years, the Arab league will possibly be the fourth, fifth or sixth most competitive league in the world if they continue with the plan they have.”

His presence will give it a level of kudos that it has never had before. And good luck to Cancelo for the first goal, if he wants to deny Ronaldo what would be his 11th hat-trick for Portugal. Ronaldo rattled in a penalty to make it 3-0. He flashed in a free kick for Portugal’s fourth and an offside flag denied him another one.

Yet there might be some difficult choices ahead for Martinez when he considers the list of players who are waiting in line to form a new-look Portuguese attack.

Joao Felix, the Chelsea loanee who played alongside Ronaldo, is developing into a player of real substance. Rafael Leao had to make do with a substitute appearance and so did Goncalo Ramos, despite 23 goals for Benfica this season (and a hat-trick when he took Ronaldo’s place against Switzerland in the World Cup). Ramos did eventually replace Ronaldo on a night when Bernardo Silva added Portugal’s other goal and Diogo Jota was an unused substitute. It is some squad Martinez has inherited.

Portugal’s players, blessed with such a depth of attacking talent, celebrate Bernardo Silva’s goal against Liechtenstein (Photo: Carlos Rodrigues/Getty Images)

“There have been no end of interviews with former colleagues and team-mates strongly advocating Ronaldo’s selection,” says Tom Kundert, a writer and author specialising in Portuguese football. “As much as his ability, they point to his experience and what he represents for Portuguese football. But there are also journalists and fans who think it would be best for Portugal if he had retired from the national team and you could say they were vindicated with what happened in the World Cup.”

Here’s another theory: how could Martinez realistically consider leaving out Ronaldo? Not this early in his tenure, anyway.

Just think about it properly. Santos had eight years in the job, including Portugal’s Euro 2016 win and various individual honours, to give him the platform to make that decision in the World Cup. Martinez has none of that. Imagine the commotion if he had swung the axe before his first match, denying Ronaldo an appearance record in the process.

And so there was a hug between manager and player as the forward was withdrawn, Ronaldo soaking up the acclaim in the stadium where he first came to Sir Alex Ferguson’s attention almost 20 years ago and Martinez basking in a comfortable opening win. The Mexican wave sweeping around the arena added to the sense of celebration.

Liechtenstein were obliging opponents, as you might expect for a nation tucked in behind Tonga and Timor-Leste in FIFA’s world rankings, and there is a fairly staggering statistic that Ronaldo has scored against 33 of the 43 European nations he has faced. 

“Portugal have often looked more cohesive when Ronaldo hasn’t been in the team, not just recently but over the last few years,” adds Kundert, author of A Journey Through Portuguese Football. “The ideal situation would be for Ronaldo to accept a reduced role, coming off the bench as an impact sub.

“But I’m not sure that’s going to happen just yet.”

(Top photo: Jose Manuel Alvarez/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)

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