Hat-trick hero Ramos still has to take second billing as Portugal power past Switzerland

Fernando Santos stumbles upon a winning formula by sensationally dropping Cristiano Ronaldo

Portugal announced themselves as contenders to win the Qatar World Cup with a 6-1 demolition job on Switzerland, as coach Fernando Santos stumbled upon a winning formula by sensationally dropping Cristiano Ronaldo.

Ronaldo’s replacement, the 21-year old Gonçalo Ramos, scored an astonishing hat-trick to vindicate Santos’s decision and give Portugal their biggest-ever win in World Cup knock-out football.

Unable to accept the fact that he is now too old to play every minute for a top team, Ronaldo has spent the last few months angrily lashing out. On the eve of the tournament, he kicked his way out of Manchester United with that ridiculous Piers Morgan interview. The saddest thing about the interview was that he seemed sincerely to believe some of the nonsense the arch-sycophant Morgan encouraged him to spout.

A penalty against Ghana made him the first player to score in five World Cups, but his most notable involvement other than that was to pretend to have touched the ball as Bruno Fernandes’s cross flew in against Uruguay. One more goal would equal Eusebio’s record of nine in World Cups for Portugal, but when Portugal were awarded a late penalty against Uruguay, Ronaldo had already been substituted.


Leaving the pitch after being substituted against South Korea, Ronaldo could be seen muttering to himself as he handed the armband over to the second captain, Pepe. Lip readers decoded the comment as “You’re in a f**king rush to kick me out, f**k you!”

He later maintained that his comments were directed at South Korea’s Cho Gue-sung, who had apparently told him to hurry up and get off the pitch, but for some reason Santos seemed to think it was about him: “I didn’t like it. I really didn’t like it,” the coach remarked.

With this outburst it seems Ronaldo alienated his last remaining ally. His team-mates had long ago lost patience with a striker who does little on the pitch but stand around and complain. A poll in Portuguese sports newspaper A Bola suggested that 70 per cent of fans no longer wanted him in the starting XI. Now Ronaldo had handed Santos the final justification to leave him out.

As the teams stood for the anthems, the pitchside photographers crowded in front of the Portugal bench, pointing their cameras at Ronaldo. He sang along with the anthem, a paragon of dignity and patriotism. When his face appeared on the big screen the Lusail crowd cheered wildly.

Hearing their hero-worship you considered how this situation might feel from his point of view. Surely it must seem a monstrous injustice. His historic quest for greatness, thwarted by a Lilliputian conspiracy of jealous team-mates and a cowardly coach in thrall to media losers and haters. Only these fans – the true people of football, uncorrupted by envy and spite – seemed to understand the truth.

Back in the real world, Ramos wasted no time in making his mark. There seemed little danger as he controlled João Felix’s pass on the left of the Swiss area – indeed Felix, who was now running for the middle, obviously intended the pass as the first part of a one-two. But Ramos, with magnificent simplicity, turned and smashed the ball into the near top corner.

Switzerland goalkeeper Yann Sommer came into this game with the best save percentage of any goalkeeper in the tournament, stopping 90 per cent of shots on target. He had no chance with this. He stood by his post, frozen in disbelief, as the Portuguese players celebrated. Ronaldo watched impassively, as though it was his own team that had conceded the goal. It had taken Ramos just 17 minutes to score more World Cup knock-out goals than Ronaldo had managed in four previous tournaments.

On 33 minutes, another Felix pass towards Ramos was headed behind by Fabian Schär and from the resulting corner Bruno Fernandes hit a lovely cross that dropped between the Swiss centre backs Schär and Manuel Akanji. Pepe, timing his arrival to perfection, headed powerfully past Sommer. This time Ronaldo did come running, along with the other substitutes, to celebrate the goal.

Being around Pepe makes him feel young. Less than three months before he turns 40, Pepe had just become the oldest player ever to score in a World Cup knock-out game, and the second-oldest overall after Roger Milla, bumping Ronaldo down to third in the seniors’ roll of honour.

In the second half, as Fernandes took a Portugal corner at one end, it became clear from the noise that the crowd was more interested in Ronaldo warming up at the other end. It took another Ramos goal to win back their attention, as he stabbed Diogo Dalot’s low cross through Sommer’s legs at the near post.

With 51 minutes on the clock the game was over as a contest – but not as an exhibition. Four minutes later Portugal scored their best goal yet. Otavio and Silva were involved before Ramos played a perfectly timed pass into the path of the charging Raphael Guerreiro. The left back beat Sommer with a shot to the roof of the net.

Switzerland scored a consolation goal three minutes later when Akanji knocked in a corner at the back post. As for the majority of the crowd, there was only one thing that could console them.

“Ronaaaaaldo, Ronaaaaaldo” came the chant from around the ground – though curiously, the chants seemed to be coming from everywhere but the Portuguese fans massed behind Diogo Costa’s goal. We were hearing the neutrals – the World Cup fans who didn’t want to go home without having seen Ronaldo. Gonçalo who? It doesn’t matter what the players are actually doing out there – for most fans, Ronaldo is the whole show.

Ramos responded the only way he knows how: with yet another World Cup knock-out goal. Again Felix played him in, and the young forward casually chipped Sommer as though nothing in life could possibly be easier than scoring in the World Cup knock-out rounds.

When the crowd started to cheer during an unremarkable spell of play you knew before looking that Santos had decided to give them what they wanted and that Ronaldo was on the sidelines, preparing to come on. He replaced Ramos on 74 minutes to the biggest roar of the night, the crowd making it clear that they would much rather be watching the 37-year old megastar than the 22-year old match-winner, however many goals he scored.

Ronaldo blasted a free-kick into the wall, then a few minutes later ran in and finished brilliantly – only to be denied by the offside flag. There was to be one more goal for Portugal, but it was Rafael Leão, not Ronaldo, who beat Sommer with a curling finish. It was the first time Switzerland had conceded as many as six goals since they lost 8-1 to England in 1963.

After tonight Ronaldo might feel like going home, tearing the magic mirror off the wall and smashing it in a rage. And yet Portugal are in the quarter-finals, facing beatable opponents in Morocco. Ronaldo won’t start, but some of the biggest moments in Portugal’s football history lie ahead in the next few days. If he can muster the patience to refrain from any further outbursts, a chance might yet fall his way.

Ken Early

Ken Early

Ken Early is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in soccer