Rationally, Fernando Santos has no choice at all to make.
In the group phase of the World Cup, his Portugal team looked hesitant, cumbersome, ever so slightly disjointed. In the round of 16, everything came together. Against Switzerland, Portugal was fluent, imaginative, devastating.
The difference, of course, was that Santos had done the unthinkable: He had relegated Cristiano Ronaldo — the most celebrated player in his nation’s history, who was playing in his farewell tournament — to the ranks of the substitutes. Ronaldo had not taken the news without any quibble: Called into Santos’s office, Ronaldo asked his manager whether he was sure it was the right move. “Do you really think that’s a good idea?” Ronaldo said, in Santos’s telling. The coach did not specify whether the emphasis was on the “really” or on the “good.”
As it turned out, of course, it was a good idea. An extremely good one. Portugal beat Switzerland, 6-1. Ronaldo’s direct replacement, the unheralded Gonçalo Ramos, scored a hat trick, as if to underline the point. It was not just that Portugal seemed free without Ronaldo. It was that the team, at last, made sense without him.
Going into Portugal’s quarterfinal against Morocco on Saturday, then, it is hard to imagine Santos going back on his decision and reinstating Ronaldo to the team. He has made the biggest call he could make, after all; he has already taken the risk, ridden the slings and arrows of criticism, gambled that he can retain the 37-year-old Ronaldo’s faith even if he feels his ego has been pricked. Why make that most painful of breaks only to retrace your steps a few days later?
That interpretation, though, underestimates not only how much influence Ronaldo has on this Portuguese squad — a substantial portion of which is young enough to regard him less as a peer and more as a hero — but, more important, the status he has in Portugal.
Polls in Portugal over the last few days have suggested that Santos has public support, that there is no deafening clamor for Ronaldo to be reinstated. But he is a national icon, almost certainly the most famous person in the nation’s history, just ahead of Vasco da Gama and Nelly Furtado.
Dropping him, of course, is a considerable gamble. And should Portugal make it through the quarterfinal, the pressure to include him will only grow. Before the round of 16, Santos made the biggest call of his career. He may yet have three calls of even greater scale awaiting him.