What happens to Ronaldo’s career after Portugal’s World Cup exit?

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Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal career is hanging in the balance following the national team’s crushing 1-0 loss to Morocco in the World Cup’s quarter-final stage.

Ronaldo, 37, one of the greatest ever to play the game, has never won the tournament, and likely never will following Morocco’s breathtaking and historic upset of Portugal on Saturday night in Qatar.

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As Morocco’s bench stormed the field in elation, setting Al Thumama Stadium alight and triggering celebrations across Africa and the Arab world, the cameras were quick to pan to the Portuguese captain.

The contrast, by comparison, was striking.

Ronaldo briskly exited the field, took a final stoic glance at the crowd before cupping his hand over his face in utter disappointment.

Notably, he exited the pitch unaccompanied by teammates, apparently sobbing, as he strode past reporters, camerapeople and FIFA staff towards the Portuguese dressing room. He was almost completely alone.

Ronaldo has yet to comment on his future.

If Qatar is indeed the end, it will be a bittersweet conclusion to a legendary career for the Portuguese player.

Ronaldo’s biggest moment at the tournament – when he became the only male player in history to score a goal in five separate World Cups – will surely be remembered for generations.

Ronaldo holds the world record as the all-time overall leading scorer in international play with 118 international goals in 196 matches. He is also a five-time Ballon d’Or winner, the recipient of four European Golden Shoes and has seven league titles under his belt.

In October, he scored the 700th goal of his club career for Manchester United.

Cristiano Ronaldo on the Portuguese bench during Portugal's clash with Morocco at Al Thumama Stadium on December 10.
Cristiano Ronaldo on the Portuguese bench during Portugal’s clash with Morocco at Al Thumama Stadium on December 10, 2022 [Showkat Shafi/Al Jazeera]

The 2022 World Cup, though, was surely a rollercoaster of ups and downs.

Notably, Ronaldo was benched in Portugal’s first knockout round 6-1 demolition of Switzerland – the first time since 2008 – after he angrily reacted to being substituted against South Korea in the side’s final group match. Reports later swirled that he had threatened to walk out on the Portuguese squad amid their World Cup run. Portugal denied those reports.

On Saturday, Ronaldo again was relegated to the bench by head coach Fernando Santos, who gave his replacement, Gonçalo Ramos, the nod after he scored a hat-trick in the match against Switzerland.

“No regrets,” Santos said of his decision not to start his captain for the second consecutive match.

“Cristiano is a great player, he came in when we thought it was necessary. We have no regret.”

Ronaldo was not subbed onto the pitch until the 51st minute, and as he rushed onto the field, he swapped the captain’s armband with veteran defender Pepe before turning his attention to his remaining teammates, whom he desperately urged to press on.

His late-game cameo was met with a resounding chorus of jeers at Al Thumama Stadium, where Portugal fans were vastly outnumbered by Morocco supporters. As the final whistle neared, Ronaldo threw his arms up to the Portugal fans, in a last-ditch attempt to rouse the crowd.

He nearly generated a scoring chance in the 82nd minute, setting up teammate João Félix, whose shot was denied by Morocco’s goalkeeper. In the end, Ronaldo and the team were unable to repair the damage done by Morocco’s Youssef En Nesyri, whose game-winning header in the 42nd minute was enough to carry the Atlas Lions to the World Cup semi-finals.

As a tearful Ronaldo broke for the locker rooms, his teammates, still paralysed by the loss, lingered on the field to interact and thank the Portugal supporters.

Former Spain international Javier Martinez said he did not believe Ronaldo would continue with the national team, adding he could understand the Portuguese superstar’s reaction.

“This was maybe the last chance he got to win a World Cup,” Martinez told Al Jazeera. “Such a player like him, he deserved a World Cup and he’s very disappointed.”

Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates after scoring against Ghana at the 2022 FIFA World Cup on November 24
Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates after scoring against Ghana at the 2022 FIFA World Cup on November 24, making him the only player in history to have scored in five World Cups [Reuters/Hannah Mckay]

Portugal, who edged Ghana and shut out Uruguay, before being upset 2-1 by South Korea in the group stages, have not advanced beyond the last 16 since their fourth-place finish at the 2006 World Cup in Germany.  Seleção das Quinas finished third in 1966. The team has never won a World Cup.

Ronaldo, who exits Qatar having never scored a knockout round goal, will now transition back to an uncertain club future.

Days into the tournament, Ronaldo was dropped by Manchester United with “immediate effect” after he conducted an explosive interview on the eve of the World Cup, in which he sharply criticised manager Erik ten Hag.

Ronaldo has weathered his fair share of on- and off-the-field controversies over the past two decades, but he may now be entering the toughest stage of his career.

SOURCE: AL JAZEERA AND NEWS AGENCIES

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