Cristiano Ronaldo, one of the greatest footballers of this era, has been in news recently for all the wrong reasons. His tumultuous tenure with Manchester United, which ended on a sour note with an explosive interview, proved to an unwelcome distraction for the Portugal team ahead of the FIFA World Cup 2022 in Qatar.
Though he started off the tournament on a bright note, scoring a goal from the spot against Ghana to become the first player to score in five different World Cups, he was ineffective in Portugal's final two games of group play.
In the round of 16 match against Switzerland, coach Fernando Santos chose to start with Goncalo Ramos, a little-known forward who made his international debut three weeks ago. He went on to score a hat-trick in Portugal's 6-1 win.
Santos had expressed frustration with his 37-year-old star the day before he dropped Ronaldo from the starting lineup. Santos said the decision was tactical and not disciplinary, but he had acknowledged he was bothered by Ronaldo's poor attitude after he pulled him late in a 2-1 loss to South Korea in the final game of group play.
The latest straw is a report from Portuguese newspaper Record claiming that Ronaldo had considered walking out on the team following a tense conversation with the coach. However, the Portugal forward has put out a post on social media, apparently refuting the claims.
"A group too close to be broken by outside forces. A nation too brave to let itself be frightened by any adversary. A team in the truest sense of the word, which will fight for the dream until the end! Believe with us! Strength, Portugal!," Ronaldo tweeted.
His response came after the Portuguese FA released a statement clarified that Ronaldo never issued such threats.
“News released this Thursday reports that Cristiano Ronaldo threatened to leave the national team during a conversation with Fernando Santos, national coach. The FPF clarifies that at no time did the captain of the National Team, Cristiano Ronaldo, threaten to leave the national team in Qatar. Cristiano Ronaldo builds up a unique track record every day at the service of the national team and the country, which must be respected and which attests to the unquestionable degree of commitment to the national team," the Portuguese FA said in the statement.
"Cristiano Ronaldo builds up a unique track record every day at the service of the national team and the country, which must be respected and which attests to the unquestionable degree of commitment to the national team," they added.
There were also reports that he did not train with the substitutes on Wednesday, and instead joined the starters for a gym session.
Dip in form and popularity?
Interestingly, a poll in Portugal showed that fans in his home country wanted the superstar dropped from the lineup.
It's not unprecedented for Ronaldo to get less playing time, because the ageing superstar has faded of late. He barely played in the Premier League for United through the first half of the season, and Santos dropped him from the Portugal lineup for a Nations League game against Spain in March.
Ramos – Ronaldo's replacement?
Ramos's first career start for his national team came as Ronaldo's replacement and he scored on just his fourth touch of the game in the 17th minute to give Portugal a 1-0 lead.
Santos added goals in the 51st - a goal Ronaldo celebrated as he warmed up on the sidelines with the rest of the substitutes - and again in the 67th.
Ramos, who has 21 goals this season for Portuguese club Benfica, made his debut for Portugal last month in a warmup game against Nigeria and scored his first international goal. He replaced Ronaldo late in the opening World Cup match against Ghana, and again against Uruguay.
World Cup worries
With Ronaldo, Portugal has advanced to the round of 16 of the World Cup in four of his five tournaments, but he's never played in a final at the tournament. Portugal in 2006 lost to France in the semifinals - the deepest Ronaldo has ever reached at the World Cup.
Although he's scored in five tournaments, he has only eight goals in 20 World Cup matches. His 118 goals in international play is a world record for men, but Ronaldo has never scored in the knockout stage of the World Cup.
Will he get a chance to make amends on Saturday, when Portugal take on surprise entrants Morocco in the quarterfinal? Only time will tell.