Roberto Martinez starts Portugal reign with shadow of Cristiano Ronaldo looming large

22-03-2023 11:51 AM

Ammon News - There are no easy matches in international football, Roberto Martinez, the new manager of Portugal, insisted as he embarked on his first week’s work with his players.

Every international manager has an obligation to stress that, especially when the immediate fixture list looks like a very kind welcome to the job: Liechtenstein first and then Luxembourg. Martinez added, as he explained the choices made for his first Portugal squad, that “he has never opted for the easy decisions” in his varied managerial career.

One selection among the 26 players he called up had, he knew, attracted special scrutiny and debate about whether it was an easy or a tough, bold choice.

Cristiano Ronaldo has been retained as captain at the age of 38, as the only member of the Portugal squad playing his club football outside Europe, and as the snubbed superstar who, for his previous two caps – the 195th and 196th of his record-breaking career – was dropped to the bench, used only in the second halves of key World Cup knockout matches.

Ronaldo does not sit comfortably on substitutes’ benches. The story of this, his 21st season as a senior professional, has made that clear time and again.

His contract with Manchester United was cancelled last November after he went public with criticisms of how the club, and coach, Erik ten Hag, showed what Ronaldo regarded as insufficient “respect” to him. He had refused to come on as a late substitute in a match against Tottenham Hotspur. He fell out badly with Fernando Santos, the coach who dropped him from the starting XI at the World Cup.

Santos, who guided Portugal and Ronaldo to unprecedented success – a first Euros triumph for the country in 2016, the inaugural Uefa Nations League in 2019 – left after Portugal’s 1-0 loss to Morocco in the quarter-finals at Qatar 2022, an exit clouded by the friction with Ronaldo.
Martinez’s six years in charge of the Belgian national team was also ending at the same time, because of a group stage exit, a sharp plummet from the third place Martinez took the Belgians to at the 2018 World Cup. With little time until this week’s qualifiers for Euro 2024 were to begin, both men quickly had new jobs, Santos with Poland, Martinez with Portugal.

For Martinez, the challenge of overseeing what is likely to be the end of Ronaldo’s glorious Portugal career is complex. CR7 is hugely admired by compatriots, if not universally loved. He has scored goals at a fine rate in his first two months playing for Al Nassr in Saudi Arabia, where he moved after his release from United. And the next Euros finals are only 15 months away.

Perhaps if Ronaldo shows the staying power of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the 41-year-old freshly recalled by Sweden, he could even yet play in what would be his sixth World Cup in 2026.

But that would probably require Ronaldo accepting he cannot start every international, and Martinez being convinced that Ronaldo’s club football at Al Nassr keeps him at a sharp enough standard to take up a spot in a Portugal squad whose other attacking players come from, among other places, Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, AC Milan and Benfica.

When Ronaldo was dropped at the World Cup, Benfica’s Goncalo Ramos, 21, came in for his first ever senior international start and promptly scored a hat-trick in the 6-1 win against Switzerland.

Milan striker Rafael Leao was the 2021-22 Serie A Footballer of the Year. Joao Felix, on loan at Chelsea from Atletico Madrid, will go into the next transfer window with one of the highest price-tags of any footballer likely to be on the market this summer. Liverpool’s Diogo Jota is coming back to full fitness after a long lay-off.

Such is the quality of contenders for a place in Portugal’s attack, for just two or three starting positions in front of City’s Bernardo Silva and United’s Bruno Fernandes, that RB Leipzig centre-forward Andre Silva – 19 goals from 53 international games – has not been called up.

Martinez must ponder hard what part Ronaldo should play in a squad with all these resources.

“I look for commitment,” said Martinez, “and Ronaldo has huge commitment to the national team, is a major figure for it, and has experience he can pass on.”

For the players of Liechtenstein – who Portugal host in Lisbon on Thursday – and Luxembourg – against whom Ronaldo has struck nine of his 118 international goals – that experience, that CR7 aura, will only look daunting. But in the months and years ahead, Martinez will be continuously reassessing the value of his superstar.

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