We should probably start by discussing the notable absentee from Tuesday’s World Cup last-16 game. Specifically, Switzerland. Granted, the Swiss would make their belated entrance in the second half, a cameo appearance to console the thousands of fans who had come to support them. But the result was no longer in doubt, and ultimately their presence was largely inconsequential. A reminder, if any were needed, that in this rarefied air those who are not prepared to put in a defensive shift quickly dissolve into irrelevance.
But of course there was a genuine star here too, and he was playing up front for Portugal. Gonçalo Ramos is 21 years old, comes from the Algarve and had not played international football until last month. He left Lusail with his life changed forever: a hat-trick and an assist, accomplished with the irrepressible confidence of a young man convinced the stage is his to own.
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This was perhaps the most arresting thing about Ramos here. There were no histrionics, no wide-eyed expressions of disbelief, nothing that betrayed the magnitude of this occasion or any flicker of doubt. He was a surprise call-up by Fernando Santos; perhaps even a speculative pick, one to bring along for the learning experience. But there can be little doubt now that Ramos is not just the future of this Portugal team, but its present.
Ramos plays for Benfica, currently eight points clear of the Primeira Liga under Roger Schmidt, and what really sets him apart is his movement. He weaves left and right, sniffs out the space, keeps defenders guessing with quick changes of direction and sudden bursts of pace. He has a poacher’s instinct, a beast of a shot and a bullet header. And yet last season he often played as an understudy to Darwin Núñez, dropping deep to create space for the main man.
Núñez signed for Liverpool this summer. All of a sudden Ramos was the main man. Now entrusted with leading the line, the position he likes best, he already has 14 goals for Benfica this season and arrived in the Middle East on a wave of good tidings. Here he took his place at the vanguard of a daringly aggressive lineup: five attacking players and only one genuine holding midfielder in William Carvalho. In addition left-back Raphaël Guerreiro charged forward at every opportunity, at times the furthest player up the pitch, finishing off a terrifying breakaway to put Portugal 4-0 up.
In a way, you wondered whether this was Portugal as Santos has always envisaged them: a young and hungry team playing a lightning attacking game. But this is not the sort of football you can play unless all your players do their jobs at all times. It is not a system built to carry passengers. If your centre-forward is not pressuring the goalkeeper and cutting off the passing angles into midfield, then you will simply get cut open. If one of your front five is not mobile or selfless enough to make decoy runs and drag defenders out of position, then your attacks will end up looking very similar.
But with Ramos as the spearhead, Portugal looked a totally different prospect. His first goal was the key here: João Félix playing it into him, Fabian Schär showing him outside, reasoning that a rookie striker was not going to score his first World Cup goal by smashing it in at the near post from an impossible angle. Which is exactly what Ramos did. He topped it off with his trademark smoking gun celebration, and somehow that moment seemed to move the envelope of possibility for Portugal, convince them of a brighter future.
The veteran Pepe – a man who made his professional debut in the year Mark Hughes retired – scored their second with a ridiculous leap, a reminder that age is no barrier to a place in this side. But Ramos would not be kept quiet for long. He tucked in Diogo Dalot’s cross with a sharp diagonal run to the near post and would later complete his hat-trick with a delightful burst of pace and a dainty chip over Yann Sommer.
This is simply the way of things: the leaves fall in autumn and grow again in spring, players get old and new players come through. Finally, with a few minutes remaining Portugal brought on their big man in an attempt to get him a confidence-boosting goal. And Rafael Leão obliged: cutting inside and curling the ball delightfully into the far corner. With Ricardo Horta also making a late cameo, and typically assured displays from Otávio and Bernardo Silva, Santos now has something of a dilemma in the attacking positions.
And make no mistake: this was a performance to put the rest of the tournament on notice. Morocco in the next round should put up more of a fight than Switzerland, although Portugal may well be the fresher side, having essentially got the job done within one hour instead of two. There is a long road ahead. Santos has some devilishly tough calls to make. But with the remarkable Ramos at the helm, this is a team that finally feels complete.