LUSAIL, Qatar — By the fourth goal, even Cristiano Ronaldo, standing and clapping in front of the Portugal bench, could not complain. After the fifth, he only offered a wry smile. Portugal was in the quarterfinals of the World Cup, and for a day even he knew that was a story bigger than Cristiano Ronaldo.
Ronaldo does not step out of the spotlight easily. Thirty-seven years old and newly unemployed, he has desperately wanted to make his mark at what is almost certainly his final World Cup. His performances in the group stage, though, had not matched his substantial legend, and so on Tuesday night his coach, Fernando Santos, somewhat ruthlessly turned the page.
Ronaldo was dropped from Portugal’s lineup for its game against Switzerland. Gonçalo Ramos, a 21-year-old striker from the Portuguese team Benfica, got the nod instead, earning his first start for Portugal and the unenviable job of replacing the most prolific scorer in his country’s history. In a little more than an hour, Ramos achieved an even more remarkable feat: He made an entire nation, and an entire World Cup, wonder why he hadn’t been starting over Ronaldo all along.
“Not in my biggest dreams,” Ramos said, “did I think about starting in the knockout phase.”
Imposing himself with a veteran’s cool and a gunslinger’s goal celebration, Ramos scored a 67-minute hat trick to power Portugal to a 6-1 victory over Switzerland, and to a date with Morocco in the quarterfinals on Saturday.
The first goal was probably the best of the bunch: a quick turn in the penalty area and a shot fired so hard and so fast that it was past goalkeeper Yann Sommer before he could get his hands in its way. Or maybe he just thought better of it.
Ronaldo was off like a shot when the ball hit the roof of the net, sprinting off the bench and toward the corner flag, smiling wide, disappearing into a pile of teammates and substitutes.
Ronaldo had not wanted it to go like this, clearly. He had strolled through the pregame warm-up, doing little to disguise his disappointment in his benching and even less to get loose for the game. But the goal seemed to change something in him, and he couldn’t hide it.
He celebrated again when Pepe doubled Portugal’s lead later in the first half, running again to join his teammates in a group hug, and then stood and clapped politely when Ramos’s second came six minutes after halftime, a one-time finish that turned in a low centering pass from Rúben Dias. Ramos’s third arrived about 15 minutes later, placed on a tee for him on a dead run by João Felix.
Raphaël Guerreiro and Rafael Leão added to Portugal’s goal haul as Switzerland’s defense and its World Cup campaign were left in tatters. But there will be little talk beyond what Ramos did, and what Ronaldo did not.
A large portion of the crowd had turned up expecting to see him, after all. So as the clock ticked past the hour mark and Switzerland valiantly scrambled in a goal to cut the deficit to 4-1, the fans called for Portugal’s victory cigar. “Ro-nall-do! Ro-nall-do!” they chanted over and over.
Santos, annoyed at the lost shutout and the lax defending that had allowed it, tuned it out as he prowled the grass in front of the dugout. He shouted. He pointed. He scowled. He did not, however, summon Ronaldo.
When Ramos got his third goal, though — Portugal’s fifth — the old coach gave in to the crowd and the sentiment and the story line. Ronaldo was told to get his jersey on, to get ready. With a thin smile, he strode forward, accepted the captain’s armband from Pepe, stepped across the touch line and bathed in the delayed adoration.
He then nearly gave the fans what they wanted, finding the net on a breakaway 10 minutes after coming on. But he had been yards offside at the start of his run, and the goal was correctly scrubbed away. A second chance three minutes later momentarily lifted the fans off their seats again, but this time Ronaldo failed to put it away, and he was offside again anyway.
It hardly mattered at that point. When the whistle blew he shook some hands and offered a few waves and made a beeline for the tunnel, not even breaking stride when he passed Santos, his coach. There was nothing to say anyway, really.
Asked afterward if he was happy, he replied with a smile, “Of course, of course — Portugal won.”
Santos said later that there was no issue inside the team, or with his star player. “I have a close relationship with him,” he said. “I always have.” They have known each other since Ronaldo was 19, he pointed out, and they never “misinterpret” each other.
“I have three players I fully trust,” he said of the forwards Ronaldo, Ramos and André Silva, “and for each match I will use whatever I believe is the best.”
He didn’t really have to explain any of his decisions on Tuesday. The job was done. Ramos had scored three times. Portugal had won. It now has at least one more game to play, and maybe another, and then another after that. Portugal may even play them with its most famous striker on the bench, and with its most productive one on the field.
And no one, not even Ronaldo, can complain about that.