How do you tell your national figurehead when it’s time to go? Uruguay face this issue more starkly than Portugal. The countries’ clash in Monday’s group game is also a reunion of ageing centre-forwards: Portugal’s 37-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo and Uruguay’s Luis Suárez, two years younger but looking older.
Age can help a footballer, but both men are so deep into their decline as to have become clubless: Suárez’s sentimental homecoming with Nacional in the Uruguayan league ended this month, while Manchester United terminated Ronaldo’s expensive contract last Tuesday for his blaming-everyone-but-himself interview with Piers Morgan.
United’s executives were probably delighted Ronaldo gave them an out: despite his goalscorer-only role, he had scored just one league goal this season. Yet here both legends are at football’s biggest tournament, because World Cups are about more than football.
Suárez’s spot on Uruguay’s teamsheet is hard to justify. His hardworking side cannot afford to carry a stationary passenger. In the hour he was allotted in Uruguay’s opener against South Korea, he had just 13 touches and no shots.
One of five Uruguayan survivors from the 2010 World Cup, including his 35-year-old understudy Edinson Cavani, Suárez’s last notional added value is as a fox in the penalty box, but his teammates hardly ever get the ball there. Yet the game plan against Korea was structured around him to the degree that Liverpool’s Darwin Núñez and Uruguay’s best player, Federico Valverde, started the match as supporting runners on the flanks.
Coach Diego Alonso did eventually accept that he needed his key men in the key zones, and repositioned them both centrally, where they should by rights start against Portugal.
A team’s hierarchy generally ends up aligned with individual performance, but the process isn’t instantaneous, and so Suárez enjoys a privileged position based on his glorious past (the goals, not the biting of opponents). He has higher status than his manager — himself jobless for 11 months between leaving David Beckham’s Inter Miami and taking over Uruguay last December — while Uruguay’s younger players grew up worshipping “El Pistolero”. Nobody seems able to tell him it’s over.
An athlete who remains at the top as long as Suárez or Ronaldo is fuelled by egotistical ambition, which is productive until it decouples from his performance. Once an ageing legend’s supporters are reduced to arguing that he’s needed for his “dressing-room presence”, his cause is lost: if that’s his value, then make him an assistant coach. (Almost every word here about Suárez also applies to Wales’s 33-year-old Gareth Bale.)
There are stronger arguments for Ronaldo. The dubious penalty he won and converted in Portugal’s opening 3-2 win against Ghana was his record 118th international goal. He’s now the first man to score at five World Cups, and both his country’s oldest and youngest ever scorer in the competition.
Portugal’s coach Fernando Santos was right to say, “In 50 years’ time, we will continue to speak about him.” Like Paul McCartney, Ronaldo is an epoch-transcending genius who gets mistaken for tabloid fodder.
Portugal, unlike Uruguay (or Wales), do frequently bring the ball into the penalty area, Ronaldo’s last remaining operating area. Possibly nobody on earth is better at converting from there, or heading in setpieces. Still, his co-ordination is inevitably declining.
More broadly, Ronaldo damages as well as benefits Portugal. Since he doesn’t defend — an almost unique privilege nowadays — opponents construct attacks through his zone. This is partly why Manchester United judged him obsolete in modern football. His central presence — constantly calling for crosses, looking devastated when teammates don’t deliver — forces most Portuguese attacks into a predictable pattern. That’s a waste.
Portugal’s new generation of Ruben Dias, João Cancelo, Bernardo Silva, Bruno Fernandes and João Félix is better than the team with which Ronaldo won Euro 2016. They could play more fluent football without him.
A rational Portugal would keep him in the squad for occasional use. However, Ronaldo’s ego isn’t made for a subsidiary role. It’s an academic issue anyway: whether on balance he benefits the team or not, Santos will always start him.
The considerations transcend football. Like about 26 of the 32 teams here, Portugal aren’t here primarily to lift the trophy, but to incarnate the nation in a collective emotional experience. That requires the national figurehead — and Ronaldo’s sole rival for that role is his Madeiran mother.
The Portuguese hope he will provide some last memories for the national photograph album, then go gracefully. But one suspects he intends to run again at the World Cup 2026, aged 41. If Suárez is there too, let it be as a dressing-room presence only.