Ronaldo's stubbornness has surely cost Portugal for the last time

As sure as the sun rising in the east and setting in the west, Cristiano Ronaldo’s name appeared on Portugal’s team-sheet on Friday night. Perhaps for the last time. But there was no romanticism about his selection, Roberto Martinez wanted him there.

Only goalkeeper Diogo Costa played more minutes for Portugal this summer, as their tournament ceased with a 5-3 penalty shoot-out defeat to France. It felt like an abrupt end for one of the world’s greatest footballing talents, who shed more tears at these championships than he did much else.

This time, though, the tears were not Ronaldo’s. Instead, the Portugal captain’s role was to console a weeping Pepe as another painful quarter-final exit came into full focus.

05 July 2024, Hamburg: Soccer, UEFA Euro 2024, European Championship, Portugal - France, final round, quarter-final, Volksparkstadion, Portugal's Pepe (l) is comforted by his team-mate Cristiano Ronaldo after the penalty shoot-out. Photo by: Jens B'ttner/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images
Cristiano Ronaldo consoled Pepe after Portugal’s penalty shoot-out loss to France

Portugal generated an xG of 9.41 over the five games they played, but only scored three times (five if you include own goals scored by Czech Republic’s Robin Hranac and Turkey’s Samet Akaydin). Ronaldo’s personal tally amounted to zero.

Why, then, was the 39-year-old chosen to lead the line against France over the abundance of talent stationed on Portugal’s exceptionally-gifted bench? Neither Diogo Jota nor Goncalo Ramos even made it onto the pitch, despite the game going the full distance – Martinez persisted with his labouring frontman for the entire 120 minutes. Bruno Fernandes was replaced with 15 minutes to go, but not Ronaldo.

Cristiano Ronaldo was consoled by team-mates after seeing an extra-time penalty saved against Slovakia
Ronaldo was comforted by team-mates after seeing an extra-time penalty saved against Slovakia

What is more alarming still, is that Portugal did not score at all during their final three fixtures. A 2-0 defeat to Georgia (with a severely-weakened side, that still included Ronaldo), was followed up by goalless stalemates against Slovenia and then fatefully France. Surely Martinez was feeling the heat? Or perhaps the Portuguese following, and press, are also afraid of what a Ronaldo backlash would do to the perceived stability of a side so often saved by their famed No 7.

Because, let’s face it, Ronaldo’s selection was not made on merit, it was dictated by the rigours of reputation. Martinez was scared to leave him out. Ronaldo’s unwavering self-belief in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary permeated all within the Portugal camp – there was little argument to be made. Certainly not one deemed valid enough to stand the great man down.

And so Jota, Ramos and co watched on as Ronaldo enjoyed six fewer touches of the ball than goalkeeper Costa – and less than any other Portuguese player. They agonised as Portugal created, backed up by superior xG data (1.84 to France’s 1.14), the more presentable chances of the two sides without finding the net. And finally, they despaired as France’s Theo Hernandez struck the decisive penalty.

France players celebrate their shootout win over Portugal
Having dumped Portugal out, France will play Spain in the semi-finals of Euro 2024

Neither Jota, Ramos or indeed any other forward-minded substitute – reserve some sympathy for Pedro Neto too – was afforded the chance to impact the game. Thus the fascination, or rather frustration, with Ronaldo’s ever-presence – he did convert his spot-kick during the shoot-out – only grows. Of the two shots he attempted in open play, only one hit the target, albeit, in the spirit of balance, he was charitable enough to allow Fernandes the chance to strike one of his prized free kicks.

Still, it remains a symptom of a wider stubbornness on both his and Portugal’s behalf that neither he nor his country can move on from his glory days.

Ronaldo has represented Portugal at six European Championships and four World Cups. He holds the all-time record for most international goals with 130, and is his nation’s most-capped player (212). His overall total of 14 goals is the most ever at Euros finals – for context, France great Michel Platini is second with nine.

And maybe those facts provide as compelling a rationale as any as to why the Portugal manager stood by his talisman until the very last. But this, Ronaldo’s final Euros hurrah, has ended without an in-game goal, and surely, an unavoidable realisation that it is time to move on to the next generation.

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