Seventy per cent of Portugal fans cannot be wrong. Those who voted to drop Cristiano Ronaldo from the starting line-up, in a highly-publicised poll by sports daily A Bola, got their wish. And if that was an indication that Portuguese football is ready to turn its back on the greatest goalscorer of his generation, his replacement scoring a hat-trick in an emphatic 6-1 win over Switzerland to reach the World Cup quarter-finals confirmed it.
Ask the previously unheralded Goncalo Ramos and - like the rest of Portugal’s next generation - he would surely praise a living and just about still playing legend. But at the Lusail, on the occasion of his first international start, he also came to bury him The Benfica striker not only scored three but set up another of the six goals in what must be described as the break-out performance of this tournament to date. What it means for the man he replaced is unclear ahead of meeting in the last eight with Morocco, but one thing appears to be certain: Portugal are a better side in Ronaldo’s absence.
That was one of the nagging questions of the group stages, after all – like Manchester United, would Fernando Santos’s band of skilful young attackers supported by established elite-level playmakers reach new heights without the need to accommodate a temperamental 37-year-old who only serves to slow them down? Ronaldo’s strop after being substituted in the defeat to South Korea last Friday the cover that he needed in order to make the boldest call of a 35-year coaching career. He took it.
At kick-off, there was still one saving grace for Ronaldo: his replacement’s lack of pedigree suggested he would not seize his chance to supplant him. Ramos may be the Primeira Liga’s current top scorer but he hit just seven in 29 appearances for Benfica last season. His first Portugal call-up came in September and before last night, his international career amounted to a grand total of just 36 minutes. And yet he needed just 17 more to surpass Ronaldo for goals in the knockout stages of a World Cup.
lt was some hit, too. As soon as Ramos had spun on his heels inside the penalty area to turn Joao Felix’s pass towards goal, the 21-year-old unleashed a strike that found the slenderest of gaps between goalkeeper Yann Sommer and his near post, then rose emphatically into the roof of the net. The sheer velocity of it drew a sharp intake of breath from most of the 83,720 inside, practically sucking the air out of the Lusail Stadium, with it eventually returning a roar of appreciation.
If Ramos’s spectacular hit was a symbol of Portugal’s future, there was still room for some remnants of the past. At 39-years-old, this World Cup will surely be the final significant act of Pepe’s international career but the battle-hardened centre-back still had enough about him to become the oldest scorer at this tournament since Roger Milla. Bruno Fernandes’s inch-perfect corner delivery invited Pepe to rise unchallenged and power a free header home.
Yet this was a night for the new generation. At the start of the second half, Diogo Dalot – Santos’s other big selection call at right-back ahead of Joao Cancelo – beat Ruben Vargas to the byline and sent a low cross into the six-yard box. Ramos was there to meet it, his impudent finish sailing through Sommer’s legs for the third. He then made the fourth, though as part of a sublime team move that started with Felix and ended with left-back Raphael Guerreiro firing in.
Switzerland pulled one back from a corner, Manuel Akanji stealing in at the far post. And yet even though it had come before the hour mark, it was destined to be a mere consolation. Portugal were playing too well to let Murat Yakin’s side back in. The crowd began to call for Ronaldo to be introduced but Santos resisted, waiting until Ramos had sealed his hat-trick. A dink over Sommer’s outstretched leg made him the youngest player to score three in one World Cup knockout tie since Pele in 1958.
Ronaldo eventually arrived with just over a quarter-of-an-hour remaining, the crowd willing him to get in on the act. He believed he had, bursting in behind a stretched Swiss defence late on, only for the flag to go up as he wheeled away to celebrate. Yet he had started a good few yards offside, as practically the only player in the opposition’s half. The sixth would instead be added in spectacular fashion by Rafael Leao, another in the emerging crop of Portuguese attacking talents. Individually, they are almost certain not to match or surpass the great feats that Ronaldo has achieved. But together, who knows what is possible.