A chant of “RONALDO! RONALDO!” swept around the biggest stadium at the World Cup, followed by loud jeers when the fans realized their idol wasn’t coming onto the field.
Cristiano Ronaldo was, in fact, sitting in the dugout, looking glum and still wearing a substitute’s bib. And the guy who started instead of him on Tuesday was about to complete a hat trick.
After Ronaldo was dropped from the starting lineup in a bold call by Portugal coach Fernando Santos, Goncalo Ramos – the superstar striker’s unlikely replacement – made himself an instant star by leading the team to a 6-1 win over Switzerland and into the World Cup quarter-finals.
Ramos, a 21-year-old forward who only made his Portugal debut last month, demonstrated the kind of clinical finishing Ronaldo was once known for in scoring the first goal in the 17th minute and adding others in the 51st and 67th.
“Not even in my wildest dreams did I think about being part of the starting team for the knockout stage,” said Ramos, who counts Ronaldo along with Robert Lewandowski and Zlatan Ibrahimovic as his soccer idols.
It was around the hour mark that fans around the 89,000-seat Lusail Stadium started to implore Santos to bring on the 37-year-old Ronaldo, and they got their wish in the 72nd minute. Portugal had the game wrapped up by then, with defenders Pepe and Raphael Guerreiro also having scored. Rafael Leao added another goal in stoppage time.
After briefly celebrating with his teammates following the final whistle, Ronaldo walked off the field on his own – perhaps wondering where his career goes from here. He is currently without a club after leaving Manchester United midway through the World Cup and he might no longer be the starter for his country.
The rest of the Portugal team hung around to applaud the team’s fans at one end of the stadium. A quarter-final match awaits against Morocco on Saturday and Santos now has to decide whether to stick with Ramos or restore Ronaldo, the top scorer in men’s international soccer and one of the game’s greatest ever players.
“We have to think about this team collectively now,” Santos said, before talking about Ronaldo. “I still consider he has a very important role in the team.”
That might now be a substitute and an experienced head in the locker room.
Ronaldo was dropped a day after Santos expressed his unhappiness at the striker’s attitude after he was substituted against South Korea in the team’s final group game. After the Switzerland game, the coach said it was a strategic decision, not a disciplinary one.
Ramos was a surprise replacement – he had previously only made three substitute appearances for Portugal – and took his chance.
Ramos, who was only 2 years old when Ronaldo made his Portugal debut in 2003, produced the first hat trick at this year’s World Cup. He also did something Ronaldo has never achieved – score a knockout goal at soccer’s biggest tournament.
Ramos drove a rising shot with his left foot inside Switzerland goalkeeper Yann Sommer’s near post for the first goal, flicked deftly through Sommer’s legs from close range for the second, and then ran through to chip the goalkeeper for his third.
Ronaldo was seen smiling while he was warming up on the side of the field after Ramos’ second goal.
“Cristiano, as captain, did what he always does,” Ramos said. “He helped us and encouraged us, not only myself but my colleagues.”
Ramos even had an assist, playing the ball through for Guerreiro to score the fourth goal.
Ronaldo had a couple of chances after coming on, and even thought he had scored when he ran through and drove a low shot past Sommer. The goal was disallowed for offside, much to the irritation of the fans – Portuguese or from other countries – who had come to see him play.
Switzerland lost in the round of 16 for the third straight World Cup. The country hasn’t reached the quarter-finals since hosting the event in 1954.
Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80