It was telling that as Portugal lined up for their World Cup last-16 clash with Switzerland, the majority of the assembled photographers were facing away from the pitch.
Rather than jostling for a snap of Bruno Fernandes, Pepe or eventual hat-trick hero Goncalo Ramos, all eyes were on Cristiano Ronaldo as he continues to adapt to his new role – substitute.
Just two months ago, Ronaldo appeared to breathe life into his stuttering Manchester United career. Coming off the bench in the opening stages versus Everton, the veteran forward scored the winning goal – the 700th of his stunning club career.
But eight weeks later, the footballing landscape has changed almost beyond comprehension. No longer a United player and no longer a starter for Portugal, Ronaldo is scrambling to prove he is still relevant at the world’s top table.
And while 2022 could yet end in World Cup glory, the final third of the year has been dominated by a downward spiral punctuated by incidents which have done little to increase positive perception.
Here, Mirror Football takes a look at the timeline which has rarely been out of the headlines in recent weeks.
Following his record-breaking strike against Everton, Ronaldo started the following weekend against Newcastle, failing to make an impact in a drab 0-0 draw. Three days later, facing Tottenham, United boss Erik ten Hag dropped him to the bench.
The decision sparked debate pre-match, but once the game was underway, it was clear Ten Hag had got it spot on. United put in arguably their best performance of the season in the dominant 2-0 victory. But as so often happens, Ronaldo still managed to make headlines.
With a few minutes left on the clock and United closing in on an impressive victory, the 37-year-old was spotted walking down the Old Trafford touchline and into the tunnel having refused to come on as a substitute. Ten Hag brushed off the incident in his post-match commitments, but sanctions were quickly forthcoming.
The United boss may have kept his counsel in public but behind closed doors, the punishment for his indiscretion was quickly confirmed. “Cristiano Ronaldo will not be part of the Manchester United squad for this Saturday’s Premier League game against Chelsea,” a statement from the club read. “The rest of the squad is fully focused on preparing for that fixture.”
In a subsequent interview with Piers Morgan (more on that later), Ronaldo took aim at the decision to suspend him, calling it “humiliating”. He said: “I was very, very, very, very disappointed with Manchester United. To be honest, I never had a problem with any club, with any coach. And they suspend me for three days, which I felt was a lot. It was a shame.”
United wrapped up their Premier League commitments with a last-gasp win over Fulham at Craven Cottage. Alejandro Garnacho, like Ronaldo 19 years ago, announced himself as a potential star of tomorrow with an injury-time winner.
Ronaldo wasn’t involved in the capital, but would still be on the front page the following morning after Piers Morgan drip-fed the first details of his explosive tell-all interview. In an initial clip, Ronaldo asserted that the Red Devils had “betrayed him”.
Among many topics of discussion was manager Erik ten Hag arose, with Ronaldo adding: “I don’t have respect for him because he doesn’t show respect for me.”
The club quickly responded with a statement of their own, days before the two-part exclusive interview hit the screens. It read: “Manchester United notes the media coverage regarding an interview by Cristiano Ronaldo.
“The club will consider its response after the full facts have been established. Our focus remains on preparing for the second half of the season and continuing the momentum, belief and togetherness being built among the players, manager, staff, and fans.”
The eyes of the world were on TalkTV as Ronaldo finally went public with his laundry list of grievances. A lack of progression at United, the manager, the owners, managers, and even his team-mates were all on the table as he laid bare his frustrations.
Ronaldo claimed he was being forced out of Manchester United, with his contract not expiring until the end of the season. If any bridges were remaining prior to the broadcast, they were a pile of ashes by its conclusion.
The writing had been on the wall well before it appeared on the club’s official website. Ronaldo’s position as a United player was beyond untenable and the arrangement was acrimoniously ended.
“Cristiano Ronaldo is to leave Manchester United by mutual agreement, with immediate effect,” a brief statement read. “The club thanks him for his immense contribution across two spells at Old Trafford, scoring 145 goals in 346 appearances, and wishes him and his family well for the future.
“Everyone at Manchester United remains focused on continuing the team’s progress under Erik ten Hag and working together to deliver success on the pitch.”
AFP via Getty Images)
Ronaldo was happy to put his club woes behind him and instead focus on winning the World Cup in what will likely be his final appearance in the competition. A sure-fire starter (or is he?) under Fernando Santos, the forward became the first player to score in five different tournaments when he converted a penalty versus Ghana.
He then laboured during the win over Uruguay before doing the same in their final group game versus South Korea. But with Portugal chasing a winner, Santos opted to take off their record scorer, triggering an unsurprisingly negative response.
Images appeared to show Ronaldo shouting towards his international boss, although he insisted the altercation was with an opposition player. Santos initially accepted his explanation before being forced to admit he didn’t like the player’s conduct at all.
The 6-1 victory over Switzerland will go down as one of Portugal’s greatest-ever World Cup performances. And it was done without the iconic Ronaldo in the starting line-up. Cameras panned to him throughout the game as Ramos wreaked havoc. He was actually very happy for his team-matres, running down the touchline to celebrate their dominant display.
He did still manage to repeat an old trick, however, and was the first Portugal player down the tunnel after the full-time whistle had been blown. Speaking after the game, Ronaldo insisted rumours of a move to Saudi Arabian side Al-Nassr were wide of the mark and his full focus was on achieving success in Qatar.
After the World Cup, he will discover whether any of Europe’s top clubs still see him as a viable option and whether it is worth the inevitable headaches which will accompany his arrival. It’s a debate which is becoming increasingly foggy with every passing week.