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Can Ronaldo rediscover his purpose after World Cup exit?

Athletes are the most self-actualised species on the planet. Guts and tenacity take them to the top of Maslow’s pyramid but it’s the heightened sense of purpose that keeps them there.

An unwavering conviction that this is what they are meant in life. It isn’t a career as much as it is a calling. Which is why walking away can be so hard.

Retirement is like death for athletes and 37-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo has been slowly dying in that sense over the last few years.

The last-16 match against Switzerland, where he started from the bench, felt like the final nail in the coffin.

Barring injuries and suspension, it was only the third time in his Portugal career that Ronaldo did not make the starting XI for a competitive game. Only once before has he made a shorter appearance for Portugal and that came in a Euro 2004 group match against Russia where he played just 12 minutes.

In the 16 league games he played for Manchester United this season before leaving, he started just four.

Switzerland was not a one-off. It happened again in the quarterfinal against Morocco.

It wasn’t the fact that he had started all of Portugal’s group games before the Switzerland one that made his benching so seismic. It felt so because it was the national team, the one place where his place, his stature and his importance have never been under threat.

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Ronaldo on the bench – a sight we may have to get used to seeing [Patricia de Melo Moriera/AFP]

“Quite apart from the fact that he is the captain, he has helped elevate Portuguese football to a different level and he’s the biggest star in terms of media glow that they’ve ever had to deal with,” European football expert Andy Brassell told Al Jazeera.

Ahead of the World Cup, many felt that the noise around Ronaldo and his relationship with Manchester United could have a destabilising effect on Portugal’s campaign.

But Brassell said they are used to dealing with the frenzy, pointing to Euro 2008 when Ronaldo was pushing for a move to Real Madrid and the 2014 World Cup when there were major concerns over his fitness.

He added that Ronaldo’s omission from the starting XI can be put down to his on-field showings: “dispirit performances” in Portugal’s opening game against Ghana and how they looked a better side against Uruguay when Bruno Fernandes was pulling the strings.

“The interesting thing was that what happened against South Korea [substitution]… that led to that Fernando Santos [coach] public telling-off which I don’t think has happened before. Santos had never told Ronaldo off in public before and that and it felt like a huge step,” Brassell said.

Santos is a man who acceded the touchline to Ronaldo at the Euro 2016 final. After going off injured in the 25th minute, Ronaldo spent most of the second half standing next to Santos, shouting instructions to the players.

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Ronaldo became the de-facto Portugal manager in the EURO 2016 final [Franck Fife/AFP]

Ronaldo’s actions in recent months – refusing to come on as a substitute against Tottenham, claiming and celebrating a goal against Uruguay that wasn’t his, airing his grievances in a tell-all interview – have been attributed partly to his ego.

But it’s more than just that. It stems from Ronaldo’s inability to accept the fact that he is no longer the player he once was.

It’s one thing to be unwilling to pass on the baton, it’s another to shield it with such ferocity.

Ronaldo’s introduction against Switzerland was met with deafening cheers in the stands.

He had a smile on his face as he looked around the stadium, perhaps coming to terms with the fact that this has become a reality: a 16-minute cameo off the bench in a World Cup knockout game when his side was 5-1 up.

Ronaldo remains the protagonist of the show but the stage has changed. As has football. A centre-forward’s job today isn’t just to put the ball in the back of the net. They are now the first line of defence and an important cog in the team’s buildup.

“Obviously, he’s very fit but I’m not sure he’s 100 percent football fit. I don’t think he can get around the pitch and make Portugal as formidable as they were against Switzerland,” Brassell said.

Photographers during the Portuguese national anthem…. pic.twitter.com/u0zoPs7ils

— Simon Evans (@sgevans) December 6, 2022

Football’s tactical evolution may have left him behind but it has also left the back door open for him. The five-substitution rule has effectively made it a game of 16 versus 16. The hyper-specificity of roles means that managers have now begun picking players with specific phases of the game in mind.

It’s not the role he may have envisaged for himself but Ronaldo could be the ultimate super-sub.

A big gripe with Ronaldo is how he demands the ball from his teammates and forces them to build around him. That’s what makes him the ideal out-ball in the final 15 minutes. He can stretch tiring defences with his smart movement and is a constant presence for them to contend with in the box.

Ronaldo is an enforcer, a player whose game is defined by disruption and power. He rarely impacts the rhythm of the game but he’s the one who makes the beat drop. Since 2020, he’s averaged a goal contribution every 100 minutes for Portugal. That was 120 minutes for Manchester United last season. The numbers don’t warrant a start but would make for an effective substitution.

Ronaldo would do well to focus his attention on Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The Swede’s career was considered over when he tore his ACL at 35 and moved to LA Galaxy in 2018.

Two years later, he returned to AC Milan and became the spiritual leader of a young team undergoing a rebuild. His minutes were regulated to maximise his utility and not hamper the development of the upcoming players.

He started less than half the games in the season they won the Serie A but Ibrahimovic’s contributions were sizeable: 17 goals in all competitions.

Once the shock of being dropped from back-to-back World Cup matches – and being knocked out by Morocco – settles, Ronaldo would do well to recognise that an opportunity exists for him to polish a legacy that has taken a battering over the past couple of years.

Ronaldo said his World Cup dream ended after the shock against Morocco.

It could be the end for Ronaldo. But, it doesn’t have to be.

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