LUSAIL, Qatar — More than 83,000 came to witness Portugal’s 6-1 romp over Switzerland in the World Cup’s round of 16 on Tuesday at Lusail Stadium. There were about 50 players in uniform, plus coaches, support staff and officials. Millions around the planet watched live.
There he was, a 37-year-old without a club after his Manchester United divorce and now on the outs with his national team, in a yellow bib warming up with the other reserves.
Before long, one of soccer’s all-time greats was an afterthought, reduced to springing off the bench to celebrate the goals of others — three times alone for his replacement, 21-year-old Gonçalo Ramos, who, until three weeks ago, had never played for the national team.
“Not even in my wildest dreams did I dream of being part of the starting 11 for the knockout phase of the World Cup and scoring a hat trick,” Ramos said.
No one had scored a hat trick in the knockout stage of the World Cup since Czechoslovakia’s Tomas Skuhravy against Costa Rica in 1990.
Ramos’s first goal was of Ronaldo quality, a quick turn and rasping drive into the top near corner in the 17th minute. Ronaldo joined the red-and-green mass at the corner flag, playfully slapping Ramos in the face.
Then it was Pepe, who debuted for Portugal when Ramos was 6, flexing his almost 40-year-old legs and soaring for an authoritative header of a corner kick in the 33rd minute. Ronaldo joined that party, too, hugging his longtime teammate.
Portugal was well on its way to the quarterfinals for the first time since 2006. It will face Morocco on Saturday. Will Portugal even need Ronaldo?
“Sometimes people are not very happy, but we have to deal with it,” Coach Fernando Santos said. “I’ve known him since he was 19, and this relationship has only developed. Ronaldo and I never misinterpret the human and personal aspect with that of manager and player.”
Asked whether Ronaldo would start against Morocco, Santos said he has 24 available players and all are able to play. Given how well Ramos performed — and how dominant Portugal was — it’s hard to imagine any changes.
“He is dynamic, attacks spaces and gives us strong pace,” Santos said of Ramos. He said Ronaldo remains in the mix, as does forward André Silva. “For every match, every opponent,” Santos added, “I will send in the one I believe fits our strategy best.”
In his first national team start, Ramos also scored in the 51st and 67th minutes to become the first player to record a hat trick in this tournament. Raphaël Guerreiro and substitute Rafael Leão also added second-half goals.
Ramos said Santos’s decision to leave Ronaldo out of the lineup was not a topic of discussion among the players before the match, adding that Ronaldo was supportive of his teammates.
“Cristiano, as our captain, did what he always does: He helped us and encouraged us,” Ramos said.
The Portuguese did not need much encouragement. From the start, this was clearly their night.
“We intend to have a team that plays with a lot of fluidity,” Santos said. “I would say we played very well today. It was a very, very good match in all aspects — a team that was circulating, had ball possession, had a lot of trust, had a lot of confidence.”
That was particularly true of Ramos, a Benfica attacker who, in the lead-up to the tournament, scored five goals in four matches, including his first international goal during a friendly against Nigeria. He made two brief appearances in the group stage before replacing one of his idols, Ronaldo.
“He’s got that striker’s smell, knowing where the ball is going to land to finish the action,” midfielder Bernardo Silva said.
Switzerland was seeking its first quarterfinal berth since 1954, when it hosted the World Cup. Until Manuel Akanji ended Portugal’s four-goal rush with a simple finish in the 58th minute, the Swiss had not scored in the knockout round since that 1954 quarterfinal against Austria.
Coach Murat Yakin cited illnesses to multiple players for a depleted roster. But he said: “We also have to admit our opponent was better, faster and [superior] in the attack. We just have to take it. Defeat is painful.”
The teams had split two UEFA Nations League matches in June, but any hope of Switzerland pulling off a World Cup upset was put to rest early. The Portuguese were humming from the start, and given the speed with which they were performing and the amount of space they were seizing, the Swiss were no match. Bruno Fernandes, Ronaldo’s former Manchester United teammate, and João Félix pierced Switzerland’s fragile resistance.
Ramos got the rout going with his splendid first goal from a tight angle. Swiss goalkeeper Yann Sommer didn’t react in time to stop the blazing shot.
Pepe’s towering finish of a corner kick was the ninth goal of his 132-game international career. Ramos almost had another before halftime, but Sommer, fully extended, used his fingertips to touch the ball wide.
But Portugal never looked back. In the 51st minute, Ramos made a near-post run and poked in Diogo Dalot’s cross.
The teams exchanged goals, then as the clock hit the 60-minute mark, a chant started: “Ronallll-do! Ronallll-do!” A dozen minutes later, Santos summoned Ronaldo — and the crowd erupted.
Ramos continued to steal the spotlight, chipping the ball over Sommer.
Ronaldo appeared to score on a partial breakaway in the 84th — only to have it disallowed because he had been well offside.
“Those issues [with Ronaldo] have been solved,” Santos said. “This is something that is finished. It’s very important to look at the example of his history. He’s one of the greatest players in the world — in terms of being a professional, as a captain, the number of goals he’s scored, how he came into the game with a lot of will. All we have to do is think about this team collectively.”
World Cup in Qatar
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Today’s WorldView: In the minds of many critics, especially in the West, Qatar’s World Cup will always be a tournament shrouded in controversy. But Qatar’s foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, wants people to take another view.
Perspective: “America is not a men’s soccer laughingstock right now. It’s onto something, and it’s more attuned to what’s working for the rest of the world rather than stubbornly forcing an American sports culture — without the benefit of best-of-the-best talent — into international competition.” Read Jerry Brewer on the U.S. men’s national team’s future.