DOHA, Qatar (AP)Cristiano Ronaldo choked up with emotion as the tears ran down his cheeks. He momentarily covered his face with his hand, but couldn’t hide his disappointment.
This moment was too big.
It was likely the last World Cup match for the 37-year-old Ronaldo, and probably his last chance to win soccer’s biggest prize.
When it mattered most, he couldn’t conjure up the kind of soccer magic that has made him one of the greatest players the sport has ever seen.
Ronaldo was dropped from the starting lineup for the second straight match on Saturday. The five-time player of the year came on as a substitute in the second half with his team already trailing, but his one real chance was saved easily by the opposing goalkeeper. In the end, Morocco beat the Portuguese 1-0 to become the first African team to reach the tournament’s semifinals.
It was a sad ending for Ronaldo on the day he made his 196th international appearance, tied for the most in the men’s game with Kuwait forward Badr Al-Mutawa. He leaves Qatar as the only player to have scored in five World Cups but remains with eight goals at the tournament, one shy of Eusebio’s record with Portugal.
Ronaldo, the all-time leading scorer in men’s international soccer with 118 goals, did not say anything about his future after the match, going straight to the team bus from the locker room. He had said before the World Cup he did not plan to retire from the national team, and that he planned to play at least through the 2024 European Championship in Germany – eight years after he helped Portugal win its only major title at Euro 2016.
Ronaldo was first dropped to the bench in the round of 16 against Switzerland, making an appearance as a substitute. His replacement in that match, Goncalo Ramos, scored a hat trick in the 6-1 victory.
Ramos was again selected ahead of Ronaldo on Saturday.
”No regrets,” Portugal coach Fernando Santos said of not starting Ronaldo. ”Cristiano is a great player, he came in when we thought it was necessary. We have no regret.”
After receiving the captain’s armband from Portugal defender Pepe in the 51st minute, Ronaldo rushed onto the field and started encouraging his teammates. As time ran down, he raised his arms toward the Portugal fans – heavily outnumbered by the Moroccans – and asked for their support.
Ronaldo helped increase the intensity of a Portugal attack that struggled to get past the well-organized Moroccan defense. He immediately created an opportunity with a cross into the area, but then lost possession shortly afterward. He also set up a shot by Joao Felix in the 82nd, but his teammate’s attempt was saved. Then Ronaldo had that last-gasp shot in stoppage time that never was a real threat.
Ronaldo, who has never scored in the knockout stage at the World Cup, quickly made his way off the field after the final whistle and was crying by the time he entered the tunnel heading into the locker rooms.
Some Moroccan players went to console him, but there were no Portugal teammates nearby as he walked off. Most of them stayed on the field at Al Thumama Stadium and thanked the Portugal fans for their support.
As Ronaldo got near the sideline, what appeared to be a fan tried to get near him but was quickly taken away.
Santos then patted Ronaldo’s back as he passed by, possibly for the last time.
Ronaldo was left out of the starting lineup against the Swiss after Santos expressed frustration about his team captain’s attitude in the previous game against South Korea. Santos later said Ronaldo was ”not happy” to be told he was being benched, but never threatened to leave the World Cup because of the decision.
Ronaldo was coming off lackluster performances in the group stage, though he scored in the 3-2 win over Ghana to become the first player to score in five World Cups. He has played in every edition of the tournament since 2006.
The World Cup elimination caps a turbulent few weeks for Ronaldo, starting with an explosive interview with Piers Morgan and the fallout that ended with the termination of his contract at Manchester United and rumors of a move to play for Saudi club Al Nassr.
Portugal was trying to make it to the World Cup semifinals for the third time, having finished third in 1966 and fourth in 2006. The team hadn’t gotten past the round of 16 since that tournament in Germany 16 years ago.
The next chance to win the golden trophy will come in four years at the 2026 World Cup in North America, but it will likely be without Ronaldo on the team.
Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni
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