Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal teammates defend captain after demotion to bench

Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo walks off the field after the 6-1 win during the World Cup round of 16 soccer match between Portugal and Switzerland, at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar, Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2022. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

LUSAIL, Qatar — Moments after a shrill whistle called time on Portugal’s resounding 6-1 victory over Switzerland, Cristiano Ronaldo walked briskly toward the Portuguese fans behind the north goal at the Lusail Stadium, and then, after applauding them, before his teammates could join in the show of appreciation, he trudged off the field and down a tunnel.

He had just been demoted, benched at the World Cup for the first time in his glittering career. And as his teammates soared without him, he remained the center of attention. Dozens of cameramen turned their backs on Portugal’s starting 11, and zeroed in on his expressionless face. The headline writers then focused on him. Pundits wondered about him. Postmatch questions revolved around him.

So it was then and there, in a postgame interview zone, that Bruno Fernandes felt compelled to answer some questions.

“​​Do you think anyone likes to be on the bench?” he asked rhetorically after taking a question about Ronaldo’s reaction.

Even the third goalkeeper, Fernandes, argued animatedly, is “probably not happy to be on the bench. So, you think Cristiano would be happy?”

“If the manager in the next game put me on the bench,” he concluded, “I would be angry.”

His point was well taken. But it didn’t exactly dispel the assumptions that Ronaldo — who has reacted petulantly in recent months to a benching at Manchester United and to being substituted out of a group-stage match by Portugal — has taken poorly to being on the bench.

Bruno and Bernardo Silva both tried to assure the English-language media that Ronaldo had savored and contributed to a great team win. “He showed a great personality inside the dressing room. And he was fine,” Silva said.

But, he added, “of course, sometimes he might not be happy, because everyone wants to play.”

Soccer Football - FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 - Round of 16 - Portugal v Switzerland - Lusail Stadium, Lusail, Qatar - December 6, 2022 Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo is pictured on the substitutes bench REUTERS/Suhaib Salem     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo is pictured on the substitutes bench. (REUTERS/Suhaib Salem) (Suhaib Salem / reuters)

Ronaldo himself, however, did not stop to speak with reporters, leaving his scrutinized actions open to interpretation. Cameras captured him entering the stadium with a stern, unflinching expression. They later captured him embracing teammates after the win, but when he came across 21-year-old Gonçalo Ramos, who’d scored a hat trick in his stead, he wore a business-like look on his face.

Soon thereafter, he headed toward the fans, reciprocating their applause. Pepe, a veteran defender, saw Ronaldo and hurriedly called his teammates over to join, but by the time they could wrap up their joyous handshakes and congratulations near midfield, Ronaldo had exited stage left without them.

His mere presence had attracted eyes and noise all evening, and ultimately snatched headlines away from Ramos, whose hat trick was the first in a World Cup knockout game this century.

Fernandes, speaking afterward, insisted that this headline-snatching wasn’t Ronaldo’s fault. “Cristiano is the most famous player in the world, of [all] time,” he said. “No one is more famous than Cristiano — in sports. Not in football, in sports. It's normal that people come to see Cristiano … I don't see any surprise on that. … Cristiano is Cristiano. His name talk by himself.”

The players claimed that his presence and attitude weren’t causing problems.

“No, I don't think so, I don't think so,” Bernardo said. “I think he's helping us today.”

Ramos agreed. "Honestly, in our team, no one talked about it,” the undisputed man of the match said. “Cristiano, as our captain, did what he always does, he helped us. He encouraged us.”

Bruno, when pressed about why they were so much better without Ronaldo, sought to defend his teammate.

“Yeah, but we won the first two games with Cristiano in the [starting] 11,” he said. “Cristiano is doing his job, he's doing his part. He's happy with the result.”

But the drama and the questioning followed them out the doors of the Lusail Stadium, and will follow them into their quarterfinal against Morocco.

Manager Fernando Santos, when asked whether Ronaldo would play in that game, answered vaguely that “all 24 players can play. And if they're not in the starting 11, they can play later.”