Cristiano Ronaldo has found himself in unfamiliar territory this season – but no matter where he is in the stadium, the cameras follow.
After it was announced he would start Portugal’s World Cup round of 16 match against Switzerland from the bench, huge swathes of photographers swarmed around the team’s substitutes prior to kick off.
Such was the almost comical number of cameras with their lenses trained on Ronaldo, it caused laughter among most his fellow Portuguese reserves.
The substitute’s bench isn’t somewhere the Portuguese superstar has spent much time since making his career debut all the way back in 2002, with his goalscoring abilities too crucial for teams to bring him off the pitch or leave him out of the starting lineup.
However, this season has been different.
Now 37 years old, Ronaldo’s legs seemingly don’t possess quite the same zip they once used to and while he remains one of football’s great goalscoring threats, his increasing lack of mobility means he no longer fits the high-octane pressing style of football many teams like to play in the modern game.
That led to him being quickly benched by new Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag, who prefers a high-pressing, energetic style, something Ronaldo made known he wasn’t happy with.
When Ten Hag asked Ronaldo to come off the bench earlier this season against Tottenham, the former Real Madrid man threw a strop and walked back down the tunnel, refusing to enter the game.
That led to Ronaldo being dropped from the match day squad for United’s next game. Subsequently the Portuguese star addressed his behavior in an Instagram post, though he stopped short of an apology.
“As I’ve always done throughout my career, I try to live and play respectfully towards my colleagues, my adversaries and my coaches,” he wrote.
Next came the tell-all interview with Piers Morgan, in which Ronaldo called out almost everybody at Manchester United – including the cooks – which ultimately lead to the end of his second stint at the club as both parties decided to part ways.
Rumors have been swirling since his departure from Manchester United that the five-time Ballon d’Or winner is close to signing with a club in Saudi Arabia, something he has denied.
Then on Tuesday, Ronaldo was left out of the starting lineup for Portugal at a major tournament for the first time since Euro 2008.
It’s still not clear exactly why Ronaldo was dropped to the bench, but his performances of late have been well below the lofty standards he has set for himself throughout his career.
Portugal head coach Fernando Santos said in his pre-match press conference that he was unhappy with his captain’s reaction to being substituted in the previous game against South Korea.
Given Ronaldo’s reaction to being benched for United and then being taken off against Korea, it’s fair to assume people might have expected a similar reaction on Tuesday.
In Ronaldo’s defense, however, that was not the case.
He was seen cheering on his teammates for much of the match and joined in with the celebrations when they scored, including those of Gonçalo Ramos, who replaced Ronaldo in the starting lineup and scored this World Cup’s first hat-trick.
But in Ronaldo’s roughly 20-minute cameo during Portugal’s 6-1 demolition of Switzerland, he still showed what he is capable of doing in front of goal.
With his only real chance of the match, Ronaldo buried his shot past Yann Sommer but was denied a goal by the linesman’s offside flag.
His star quality remains, too, with the Lusail Stadium filled with chants of “Ronaldo, Ronaldo” when he entered the field of play to arguably the biggest roar of the night – the game’s seven goals included.
In his absence, Portugal produced by far its best performance yet in Qatar and the hammering of a good Switzerland team has helped elevated Santos’ side to serious contenders to win the World Cup.
It unclear whether Ronaldo will regain his place in the starting lineup for Portugal’s quarterfinal against Morocco, but even if he doesn’t, Santos being able to call on one of the greatest goalscorers in the sport’s history isn’t a bad option to have.