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Crying Cristiano Ronaldo mourns the end of a dream and, perhaps, an era

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There were tears in the tunnel. Cristiano Ronaldo has spent too much of 2022 fighting to contain his emotions. This time, at least, he could be forgiven for showing them. There may have been an element of selfishness to the way the substitute walked off the pitch, leaving his teammates to commiserate with each other and acknowledge the outnumbered Portuguese contingent in the stands.

Certainly a man who knows the cameras are on him hardly felt support as he shook his head as Ruben Dias and Diogo Costa blundered while Youssef En-Nesyri headed in the only goal; it was a Ronaldo-esque ending, but they often are, given the range and volume of goals he’s scored over the past two decades.

An hour later, as the victorious Moroccans knelt in front of their raucous supporters, Ronaldo wept for himself, for his dream. He will not complete the set. Lionel Messi can still win the World Cup, but Ronaldo can’t. An ambition will elude him, a medal will escape him. The private mourning may have been the reaction of a self-centered individual, but in a sense hers has been a solitary quest. He was the sole survivor of the team that lost the 2006 semifinal to France, but there will be no second meeting with Les Bleus in the quarterfinals.

Even when Ronaldo was ruled out, after 18 years as an automatic option, when his replacement Goncalo Ramos scored a hat-trick against Switzerland, it opened up new possibilities: that he could lift a trophy won by younger strikers in a more powerful team, that even he could be the super substitute who scored the winning goal at the World Cup. “We thought we could reach the final and win the final,” said Fernando Santos. Portugal had the talent but, as Ronaldo was displaced by Morocco’s phalanx of defenders, it was not to be.

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There may still be a happy ending for a veteran Ballon d’Or winner, but for Messi or Luka Modric, who seem capable of bending this tournament to their will. However, not for Ronaldo. He will be 41 when the next World Cup starts and this has been the year that, definitely, eventually, his powers have waned, along with his appeal to coaches. Eusebio will continue to be Portugal’s top scorer in World Cups. A Brazilian will continue to be the best Ronaldo in the World Cup. Cristiano Ronaldo will never get a goal in his round of 16.

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For him, the elimination against Morocco, in a tie in which Portugal was favourite, seemed like a final embarrassment in a tournament plagued with personal ignominies. To sum up his World Cup, he was released by his club, he scored from a penalty that probably wasn’t a penalty, they gave him the man of the match award when he wasn’t the best player on the pitch, he claimed a Bruno Fernandes’ goal he didn’t touched, seemed to exert such influence that no one in Portugal would admit it wasn’t his goal, was substituted and then saw Fernandes score a penalty kick, contributed to a goal for South Korea, was substituted and reacted with a show of dissent that even his old ally Santos criticized, demoted, watched 16-year-old substitute score three times, came on and had a goal disallowed because he was at least three yards offside, was omitted again, came on and had 10 touches in 50 minutes, the only remarkable one was a shot that Bono saved, and he cried when Morocco won.

Santos, the loyalist who had finally stripped him of his privileged status by benching him, defended his reaction. “If we take two people who were most upset, it was Cristiano Ronaldo and me, but that’s part of the job of the coach and the player,” he said. And yet he said he has no regrets about benching Ronaldo: the evidence against the talisman had begun to mount. Maybe he should have done it earlier.

If Messi, like Lothar Matthaus, plays in five World Cups and wins one, then Ronaldo will be in a select group of three Mexican soccer players who appeared in a final inglorious quintet. It’s been a 16-year odyssey, since his brilliant start in 2006 when he was the tournament’s standout youngster, though his time in Germany is remembered for a wink when Wayne Rooney was sent off. His most productive tournament came in 2018, with his brilliant hat-trick against Spain. In 2010, he blamed Carlos Queiroz after Portugal’s only goals came against North Korea. In 2014, when he was at his peak, he was hampered by injury and Portugal was sent off in the group stage. He has been the record scorer in the European Championships, Champions League and international football, but for a player of such stature, it amounts to a disappointing World Cup run.

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A crying Ronaldo echoed a tearful Luis Suárez, another for whom a World Cup was too far away; in each case, schadenfreude could abound. Yet as Ronaldo stalked through the tunnel at Al Thumama, it was tempting to wonder if this will be the last many of us will see of him, and not just at a World Cup. The most lucrative offer for him in his search for a club is from Saudi Arabia; the evidence is that he would not enter an elite European team. Now that he ends his preferential deal with Portugal, a lead could be planned around Ramos, Joao Félix and Rafael Leao, who was left underused in Qatar, aided and abetted by Bernardo Silva and Bruno Fernandes. He has 196 caps and surely wants 200, for another extraordinary record, but he may have to abandon plans to continue until Euro 2024 unless he is willing to reinvent himself as a replacement.

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It is a sign of his longevity that the last major tournament without Ronaldo was the 2002 World Cup. Now Euro 2024 could be next. This may not have been just the end of one World Cup, or even all of it. They were tears for the player he was and the career he’s had, for the powers and status he’s lost. Because 2022 may have been the last year Ronaldo plays in the World Cup, the Champions League and the Premier League, for Manchester United and perhaps Portugal.

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