Cristiano Ronaldo's teammates have jumped to the Portugal captain's defence in the wake of the latest controversy surrounding the 37-year-old at the World Cup. Ronaldo caused a fresh stir after being spotted leaving the field before any of his teammates after Portugal's thumping 6-1 round of 16 victory against Switzerland that set up a quarter-final showdown with Morocco, who stunned Spain 3-0 on penalties in the day's other match.
The Portugal captain was benched for the first time since 2004 in a bold move from coach Fernando Santos that paid off handsomely after his 21-year-old replacement, Goncalo Ramos, scored a hat-trick. It followed Santos' criticism of Ronaldo before the match, over the captain's outburst at being substituted during the group stage defeat against South Korea.
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Many observers saw Ronaldo walking towards the tunnel by himself - while his teammates applauded fans - as the latest sign he's on the outer with Santos and the Portugal side. Ronaldo watched on from the bench as Ramos put Switzerland to the sword, before coming on with just 17 minutes left as Portugal won 6-1.
If the sight of Ramos scoring a scintillating hat-trick wasn't already bad enough for Ronaldo, he has since come under fire for his actions after the full-time whistle. The 37-year-old could be seen briefly celebrating with teammates before going over to thank Portuguese fans in the crowd.
He then turned and walked straight off the field without any of his teammates. The rest of the Portugal team stayed on the field for a lengthy period, which many have interpreted as a sign that Ronaldo might be on the outer.
“I don’t know what Ronaldo is doing here," Aussie great Craig Foster said on SBS coverage. "He’s heading off the field first. The Ronaldo story goes on. Of course he’s going to be disappointed he’s not on. That’s his personality. That’s how you win five Ballon d’ors.”
Despite a wave of criticism towards Ronaldo from the football world - many of whom described his latest apparent temper tantrum as "shameful" - the Portugal captain's teammates have been quick to defend the superstar forward.
Ronaldo's former Manchester United teammate Bruno Fernandes felt compelled to answer questions about the country's leading goalscorer, who has not been used to finding himself on the bench over the course of his illustrious career.
“Do you think anyone likes to be on the bench?” Fernandes 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 relegated to the bench for first his club, and now his country.
Fernandes and Bernardo Silva both tried to assure the English-speaking media that Ronaldo had savoured and contributed to a great team win. “He showed a great personality inside the dressing room. And he was fine,” Silva said. "Of course, sometimes he might not be happy, because everyone wants to play.”
Cristiano Ronaldo could again start on bench in quarter-final
Ronaldo himself, however, did not stop to speak with reporters, leaving his scrutinised 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, unemotional, perhaps slightly rueful look on his face.
Santos later revealed his reasons for relegating Ronaldo to the bench, saying: “Cristiano and Ramos are different players. There is no problem with our captain. We’ve been friends for years. We spoke before the game and he had no issue with my decision.”
The Portugal coach did, however, stop short of confirming whether or not Ronaldo would again start from the bench in Sunday morning's (AEDT) quarter-final against Morocco, although dropping hat-trick hero Ramos would certainly be harsh on the 21-year-old.
“Ronaldo will definitely (be involved), all the players on the bench can be used, if they are not in the starting line-up they can play later," Santos said. "It is important to look at the example of this player’s history, he is one of the best players in the world at playing professionally, being captain – all we have to do is think about this team collectively.”
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