FIFA Men's World Cup
Portugal manager: 'Leave Cristiano Ronaldo alone'
FIFA Men's World Cup

Portugal manager: 'Leave Cristiano Ronaldo alone'

Updated Dec. 9, 2022 11:05 a.m. ET

AL RAYYAN, Qatar — Fernando Santos just wants everybody to leave Cristiano Ronaldo alone.

The Portugal manager has been answering questions nonstop about the 37-year-old superstar since his team arrived at the World Cup last month. 

The latest drama is that Santos, who has been the head coach since 2014, made a bold decision to open with Ronaldo on the bench in Portugal's round of 16 match against Switzerland earlier this week. Portugal won that game 6-1 and will face Morocco in the quarterfinals on Saturday (10 a.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Spots app).

Over the last few days, rumors have swirled that Ronaldo threatened to leave the national team after learning that he would not start in a World Cup match for the first time since 2006. The Portuguese Football Federation made a statement denying the report.


Is Portugal better without Ronaldo?

Alexi Lalas and David Mosse react to Gonçalo Ramos' hat trick and Portugal's impressive performance against Switzerland. Afterward, they debate whether Ronaldo could be holding back this Portuguese squad.

At Friday afternoon's news conference, Santos was asked if he could "clarify once and for all" what happened when he told his captain the news. In a surprising moment of candor, Santos explained in detail.

"I spoke with him on matchday after lunch and invited him to my office," Santos said. "I explained to him why he would not be one of the starters so that he wouldn't be surprised.

"I said, ‘Listen, you're not going to start. I think you'll be very important, but I think in terms of strategy, you will not be on the field.'"

Santos said he told Ronaldo that the game was going to be difficult, and he wanted to save him for the second half. Ronaldo came on for Gonçalo Ramos, the 21-year-old forward who scored a hat trick in his first World Cup start, in the 73rd minute. Ronaldo actually found the net in the 84th minute, but the goal was ruled offside.

"For obvious reasons, Cristiano wasn't happy about it because he's always been a starter except for one or two games," Santos continued. "He told me, ‘Do you really think it's a good idea?' But we had a normal conversation in which I explained my viewpoints, and, of course, he accepted them. We had a frank and normal conversation."

Ronaldo benched

Alexi Lalas, Maruice Edu and Clint Dempsey discuss Portugal's decision to bench Cristiano Ronaldo.

Santos iterated that at no point in their conversation did Ronaldo insinuate that he would leave Qatar because of that decision.

"He has never told me that he wanted to leave our national team," Santos said. "And I think it's high time that we stopped this conversation.

"He was the one who decided to start warming up with [his teammates] even though he knew he wouldn't start. And he celebrated all the goals that were scored. You could see him clapping his hands. And at the end [of the game] he was the one who invited his colleagues to thank the fans.

"So, I think it's high time to leave Cristiano Ronaldo alone. In every news conference, 90% of the questions are about Cristiano Ronaldo."

Just a few minutes later, Moroccan manager Walid Regragui called Portugal "one of the best teams in the world with one of the best players in history." And said he hoped Ronaldo would not play in their quarterfinal match.

"They have quality players everywhere," Regragui said. "They could field two or three teams. They have players who haven't played as much and will be fresh.

"I don't know if Ronaldo is going to play, but I hope he won't. He's one of the best players in the world. I would be delighted if he doesn't play."

While it's certainly a nice gesture by Santos to tell the media to leave his star player alone, it's unrealistic. Especially while his club future is uncertain after leaving Manchester United with reports that he could play for Saudi Arabian club Al Nassr (Ronaldo has denied these reports). But even more so while Portugal is still playing in this World Cup.

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Laken Litman covers college football, college basketball and soccer for FOX Sports. She previously wrote for Sports Illustrated, USA Today and The Indianapolis Star. She is the author of "Strong Like a Woman," published in spring 2022 to mark the 50th anniversary of Title IX. Follow her on Twitter @LakenLitman.


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