Cristiano Ronaldo’s Performance Shows it’s time for Portugal to move on

The legendary forward was determined to make the last-16 tie all about him, and his nation undoubtedly suffered as a result

Cristiano Ronaldo’s performance against Slovenia on Monday – and performance is certainly a fitting word for it – left viewers in the stadium and beyond utterly baffled; the star of his own one-man show, the Portugal captain made Frankfurt’s Waldstadion the stage for his melodrama in the last 16 of Euro 2024.

Ineffective in open play against Slovenia’s dogged defence and low block, the 39-year-old instead resorted to peppering their goal from free-kicks with varying degrees of farce as he commanded every set-piece his side were awarded. Frustrated in 90 minutes, Ronaldo’s long-awaited golden opportunity finally presented itself from the penalty spot in the first half of extra-time, but rather than wheeling away in celebration, he was dramatically reduced to tears as his effort was brilliantly kept out by Jan Oblak.

The veteran’s blushes would be saved in an eventual shootout triumph, as goalkeeper Diogo Costa emerged as Portugal’s hero ahead of his captain with three fine stops. However, this felt like a watershed moment for Ronaldo. “It’s football, those who fail are those who try too,” he said afterwards. “I will always do my best for this shirt, whether I fail or not. You can’t be afraid, I’ve never been afraid to face things head on, sometimes I get it right, sometimes I don’t, but giving up is something you’ll never hear from my name.”

He may not be ready to throw in the towel, but this was the latest in a long line of evidence to suggest it’s time Portugal and manager Roberto Martinez moved on from the Ronaldo show, as he desperately clings on to past glories; their hopes at Euro 2024 may depend on it.

Whatever the outcome, hero or villain, it seems Ronaldo was hellbent on making Monday about him. We are all accustomed to his histrionics by now as he aims spluttering fits of frustration at his team-mates and the referee, and screams at himself in self-motivation, but this display had a particularly desperate edge to it as he looked to respond to his critics and right the wrongs of his tournament so far.

That desperation was epitomised by his laughable determination to take every single free-kick Portugal were awarded; 30 yards out, 40 yards out, 50 yards out – it didn’t matter, Ronaldo was having it, and Ronaldo was shooting. The most absurd of all his efforts came late in the first half, as he took aim from a ridiculously tight angle – not too far from the corner flag – and ballooned the set-piece miles wide. There was no real sign of an apology, and rather more concerningly, it seemed his compatriots didn’t expect one.

To his credit, the veteran did go closer with a couple of other dead-ball attempts – one that sailed just over the crossbar and another that was beaten away by Oblak, and the Slovenia goalkeeper saved well when he was played through late on.

However, Portugal’s toiling talisman has now attempted more shots at Euro 2024 that any other player (20) without scoring, and that’s despite having an xG (expected goals) of 2.96 as his major tournament goal drought (eight games) goes on. He has netted just one free-kick out of 60 taken at major tournaments, including more than twice as many direct free-kicks at the Euros than any other player since records began in 1980.

Then there is the moment that will join Antonin Panenka’s penalty and Paul Gascoigne’s ‘dentist’s chair’ in the annals of European Championship history – one that we will see repeated again and again and again.

After Slovenia had admirably held their opponents in 90 minutes, Ronaldo was offered a chance for redemption when substitute Diogo Jota was downed in the box late in the first half of extra-time. Of course it was their No.7 who stepped up after a long delay, but his strike was brilliantly saved by Oblak.

If that wasn’t dramatic enough, Ronaldo was unable to keep a lid on his emotions as the whistle blew for half-time in the extra period, breaking down in tears with the world’s eyes on him. After 105 minutes of football where he had been determined to hog the limelight, this breakdown felt like an untimely distraction from the task at hand from Portugal’s most experienced campaigner, with his younger team-mates forced to gee him up for the restart.

His tears drew widespread criticism, and it felt like the strain of clinging on to his past exploits was proving too much. At 39 years of age and given his ineffectiveness at Euro 2024 so far, Ronaldo surely shouldn’t even have been on the pitch to miss the spot-kick in the first place, with many left wondering what the ever-reliable Bruno Fernandes must have been thinking.

Fortunately for the Portugal captain, his blushes were saved as the game went to a penalty shootout. He converted his spot-kick before goalkeeper Costa emerged as the hero by denying all three Slovenia efforts in a swift 3-0 victory.

Having offered a meek apology to the supporters after somewhat making amends in the shootout, Ronaldo was at a loss to explain his tears after the game was finally over. “Even the strongest people have their (bad) days,” he told reporters. “I was at rock bottom when the team needed me most.

“Initial sadness and joy at the end, that’s what football gives you. These are inexplicable moments. I had the chance to put the national team ahead and I didn’t manage it. Oblak made a good save. I had to review the penalty, I don’t know if I shot well or badly, but during the year I didn’t miss a single time and when I needed it most, Oblak saved it. The most important thing is to enjoy qualifying, the team did an extraordinary job, we fought until the end and if you analyse the match well, Portugal deserved it because they had more chances.”

Given he is blessed with a squad that is packed full of attacking talent, it is difficult not to question Martinez’s blind faith in the misfiring Ronaldo – even if he did plunder an extraordinary 50 goals in the evidently weaker Saudi Pro League in the club season and regardless of being Portugal men’s all-time leading goal-scorer.

Jota, Joao Felix, Pedro Neto and Goncalo Ramos – who famously scored a hat-trick against Switzerland when he was picked ahead of Ronaldo at the 2022 World Cup – were all on the bench initially despite playing their club football at a higher level, with only the former being introduced as a substitute. The Liverpool man would replace Rafael Leao rather than his struggling skipper, though.

Felix and Ramos, 24 and 23, respectively, should surely have been given an opportunity as the future of Portugal’s attack, with either more than capable of providing a spark and making a difference against an opponent that was content to sit deep. Instead, Portugal looked handicapped with Ronaldo isolated and frustrated. Jota demonstrated the alternative when he came on, running at the heart of the Slovenian defence and winning that fateful penalty.

There were the signs of a transition from the Ronaldo era beginning under former Portugal manager Fernando Santos as he showed a readiness to bench the iconic forward, but while results have generally been positive, they have taken a step back under Ronaldo advocate Martinez.

Indeed, speaking after his side had edged into the quarter-finals, Martinez offered absolutely no hope that things are about to change – instead delivering an impassioned defence of his captain.

“First and foremost I think he is a constant example for us,” he told reporters. “When you see a player, the only player to play in six Euros, with the desire and that belief [like a] young man – those emotions are incredible for someone who has won everything and experienced everything.

“He doesn’t need to care that much and that is why I thank him for the way he is. For caring for the group. For being someone who after missing a penalty was the first penalty taker [in the shootout]. I knew for certain he had to be the first penalty taker and show us the way to the victory.

“We are all very, very proud of our captain. The dressing room was delighted and I think he gave us a lesson in having real high standards and never giving up. Life and football give you difficult moments and he is an example that we are really proud of in Portuguese football.”

Martinez’s faith in Ronaldo might be unwavering, but perhaps the legend’s tears spoke to something else; there was a perceptible sense that this was a man who felt as though he was staring down the barrel of his final 15 minutes in the colours of his national team, buckling under the weight of expectation of a country on his shoulders. Even if he starts the quarter-final and any further games Portugal reach, there is the feeling that the end of his international career is not far away.

“Without a doubt it’s the last Euro (for me), of course it is,” Ronaldo told Portuguese TV channel RTP after the game. “But I’m not emotional about that. I’m moved by everything that football entails, by the enthusiasm I have for the game, the enthusiasm I see in the fans, having my family here, people’s passion… it’s not about leaving the world of football. What else is there for me to do or win?”

He did offer some hope that he is not done yet, but with the next major tournament still two years away in the form of the 2026 World Cup – by which point Ronaldo will be 41 – the end of Portugal’s Euros might change that. “The most important thing about the journey I’ve been on is the enthusiasm I still have for being here,” he added. “It’s 20 years representing and playing with the national team, bringing joy to people, to the family, my children, that is what motivates me most.”

Martinez could rewrite the script in what remains of Euro 2024, but it’s more likely to be Ronaldo who controls the narrative once again as continues his desperate personal crusade to put more gloss on an already-glittering international career.


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