DOHA, Qatar – Imagine having half a billion friends and still being lonely. Imagine being the man everyone came to see yet being stuck on the bench. Imagine being Cristiano Ronaldo … and not being wanted.
Unthinkable? Not now, not anymore, not after the most famous soccer player on the planet lives through the latest reminder that his unique life and extraordinary career has undergone a sudden, undeniable, and maybe irreversible shift.
He is still as famous as ever, and his Instagram followers tally (509 million) will probably have tacked on another mil by the time you finish this column. He’s still (along with Lionel Messi) the hottest ticket in town at this World Cup.
He’s still good-looking, as he said in a pre-tournament interview, still center of attention, still one of the greatest to lace them up.
But a new normal has arrived for Ronaldo. Astonishing as it sounds, he’s surplus to requirements. Not wanted, at least not how he wants to be wanted. The tipping point has been reached, where his ego and eccentricity and alpha ways became more trouble than they are worth.
He wasn’t wanted at Manchester United, which was looking to offload him even before he lit up the club and the coaches and the players in that infamous Piers Morgan interview.
He’s not wanted by Paris St. Germain, not wanted back at Real Madrid, not wanted by his old team Sporting Lisbon, not wanted for round two at Juventus, not wanted by any of the Champions League elite that would have mortgaged everything for him two years ago. He’s a mid-season free agent, and looks most likely to join Al-Nassr in Saudi Arabia.
And stunningly, on a Portugal team that will be an overwhelming favorite to reach the World Cup semifinal round when it takes on Morocco on Saturday (10 a.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app), he’s not wanted as anything more than a substitute, and a sideshow.
Ronaldo, frankly, doesn’t make it easy to feel sorry for him. He is among the most divisive players to have ever lived, loved and loathed in equal measure. He pouts and preens and is unabashedly self-absorbed. He is also one of the most spectacular talents and ultimate showmen in sports, never afraid of the big occasion, never one to shirk the pressure of such times.
Even his sternest detractors might spare a sympathetic thought now, for this has got to hurt.
Relegated to the bench on Tuesday, Ronaldo looked on as his replacement Gonçalo Ramos struck a glorious hat-trick and the team won 6-1 against Switzerland. Ronaldo made a late cameo as sub, and was the first Portugal player to head down the tunnel as the team celebrated afterward on the field.
What must this feel like? Ronaldo has always said that winning the World Cup for Portugal would be different from doing it for Argentina or Germany or Spain, where such things have happened before and where, due to factors of population and infrastructure, the talent pipeline usually runs thicker.
What must it be to have striven for a World Cup title your entire career, only to know now that the best chance of it happening is probably if you stay on the sideline?
“Amazing day for Portugal,” he shared on social media. “A historic result in the biggest event in world football.”
On Wednesday, reports emerged that Ronaldo had refused to train with the other subs and instead insisted on being part of a recuperation session with the starters. Maybe there was mischief-making in the reporting. You’re never quite sure with Ronaldo.
Ronaldo won the European Championship with Portugal in 2016. Superb throughout the tournament, he was stretchered off early in the final with a knee injury, then took on the role of a cheerleading CEO on the sideline.
He cuts a more disgruntled figure now, and there has been a shift in balance. The catalyst for him being dropped might have been because he angrily yelled at coach Fernando Santos for taking him off against South Korea in the last group game.
Either way, it is hard to see him getting his starting place back, not when Santos’ team looked so smooth in his absence.
The ‘FIFA World Cup Live’ crew discusses Fernando Santos’ decision to bench Cristiano Ronaldo in match vs. Switzerland
This looks like the end of Ronaldo as we know him. Nothing has been sealed, but with respect to the Saudi league, a move to Al-Nassr would be a leap into irrelevance. By the time the next Euros rolls around, he will be 39.
It is an uncomfortable truth, and a sad state of affairs. Whatever your view on Ronaldo, he has elevated the game to another level, done everything to prolong his career and preserve his excellence. But it can’t last forever.
Often the fall from grace is sharp and sudden, especially if you are coming from the highest watermark.
For Ronaldo, the drop came at just the time he didn’t want it to. When in his mind’s eye his status as the main man, the straw that stirs, the centrifuge, would last at least until the end of what’s surely his final World Cup. Him leading the charge, scoring the goals, flexing, winning, posing and loving it.
Just think, wouldn’t it have been something if it has transpired that way? Just imagine … which is all he can do now.
The ‘FIFA World Cup Now’ crew agrees with Portugal’s decision to not start Ronaldo against Switzerland
Read more from the World Cup:
Get more from FIFA World Cup 2022 Follow your favorites to get information about games, news and more