Portugal: The challenge of a future without Cristiano Ronaldo in the World Cup

For Bruno Fernandes, his teammate Cristiano Ronaldo is the most famous athlete in the world.

Joao Félix has described Cristiano as “irreplaceable”.

Gonçalo Ramos, the 21-year-old attacker who has just broken into the World Cup, has never seen his team without Cristiano.

A future without the greatest footballer in the country’s history could be a daunting challenge for the new breed of Portuguese internationals.

But they don’t seem to show it in this World Cup.

In fact, they seem to feel liberated without Cristiano in the presence of Cristiano, something reflected in the demolishing display on display in the 6-1 victory over Switzerland in the round of 16 on Tuesday.

After all, Portugal sailed from strength to strength without the presence of the five-time Ballon d’Or winner, as difficult as it may be for some to imagine.

Portugal coach Fernando Santos wanted a team that would play more fluidly against Switzerland and that meant leaving the 37-year-old star — the top scorer (118) in men’s soccer — on the substitute bench. It was a bold decision and it hit the mark, at least against the Swiss.

It was already a decision that Erik ten Hag made at Manchester United this season, leaning towards players who give him more mobility in his four-up block, instead of a scorer who no longer has the same vertigo of his best time.

It was not until the round of 16 when Santos decided to make the decision in the World Cup, determined to impose his authority after Cristiano’s rudeness when he was substituted in the game against South Korea at the end of the group stage.

On Thursday, the Portuguese soccer federation insisted that the star continues to be an important part of the national team, stating “that every day he builds a unique career at the service of the national team and the country that must be respected and that attests to the unquestionable commitment with the selection.

This does not guarantee ownership.

Against Switzerland, Ramos took over from Cristiano and signed a hat-trick on his debut and demanded more from the rival defense. He gave Félix, playing behind Ramos’s back, more room to maneuver and rounded off one of his best games with the national team.

It was another Félix, very different from the one that is tied up in the rigid Atlético de Madrid that Diego Simeone directs.

Santos highlighted the virtues of the three strikers in his squad — Cristiano Ramos and Andre Silva. While Cristiano is a player “more used to playing in a certain area”, Ramos is “much more dynamic”.

Doing without Cristiano implies a tactical change. It could have worked, will it work against Morocco?

Trying to become the first African team to reach the semifinals of a World Cup, Morocco is expected to drop lines to defend against Portugal and play on the counterattack. Santos will have to decide if it is the type of game in which Cristiano would perform better or keep the player who comes from having the game of his life.

Not a bad dilemma. Portugal will end up being a dangerous team with both proposals.

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