Portugal coach Fernando Santos could not help but shrug his shoulders and smile when asked whether his side were stronger without Cristiano Ronaldo.
“I don’t think any team in the world can perform better when its best player is not around,” he replied in the news conference prior to a Nations League match away to Sweden last September.
In the previous game, however, Portugal had overcome the absence of Ronaldo to thrash World Cup runners-up Croatia 4-1 in a display rated by many as the greatest of the Santos era so far. In a way, witnessing the likes of Bruno Fernandes, Bernardo Silva, Diogo Jota and Joao Felix play that day felt like a sneak peek into what the future holds for the country – and it could not have looked any brighter.
In the end, Ronaldo answered his critics by scoring twice in Stockholm, but the debate was far from over.
A month later, Santos again found himself having to face questions over the five-time Ballon d’Or winner’s contribution to the reigning European champions.
While he insists Ronaldo is the only irreplaceable player and guaranteed a place in his starting XI, there is a growing school of thought that the national team would be a far better and more entertaining one without the Juventus striker.
As Portugal kick off their 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign against Azerbaijan on Wednesday, the debate over whether what Ronaldo offers in terms of goals makes up for what he doesn’t off the ball shows no sign of slowing down.
A national hero, the 36-year-old superstar has never left the spotlight for his country, except for a nine-month absence following the team’s elimination at the last-16 stage of the 2018 World Cup. He was given a rest after moving from Real Madrid to Juventus that summer.
Over six matches, the Portuguese did quite well, remaining undefeated and topping their Nations League group ahead of Poland and Italy.
Ronaldo only returned to international football in March 2019, wasting no time in proving that his killer instinct was still there. He has averaged over a goal a game since then – 17 in 16 matches, helping his side win the Nations League that summer.
In other circumstances, that would have been more than enough to justify his untouchable status, but it no longer appears to be the case.
“When you compare this team to the 2016 Euros-winning side, there’s a significant talent gap between them,” says Tomas da Cunha, a football pundit for Eleven Sports and TSF radio. “We’ve got more world-class players now, so Santos has to figure out how he can still get the best out of Ronaldo at this point without sacrificing the emerging stars.
“In Ronaldo’s absence, Portugal play in a more relaxed and uncomplicated way, especially because there isn’t a reference around who is actually bigger than the team. The pieces fit together naturally. With Ronaldo, the rest of the players seem to have their decision-making unconsciously affected by the need to pass the ball to him.”
Such is his imposing presence that when Ronaldo is on the pitch, his team-mates tend to play it safe and over-rely on him. The creativity and attacking fluidity are just not the same.
Unsurprisingly, Portugal become a much more predictable side.
It’s necessary to rewind to the late 1980s, when Atletico Madrid legend Paulo Futre used to run the show on his own, to find any parallel to this dependence in the final third.
“It’s important to bear in mind that Santos is clearly a resultadista [results-driven] manager, something that explains what he wants from Ronaldo, one of the best finishers in history,” adds Rui Malheiro, a football pundit for RTP and columnist for Record.
“Santos assumes that with Ronaldo finishing the plays, Portugal get closer to converting them into goals, which is indeed true. But on the other hand, if you consider that the Portuguese player is usually technically gifted and likes to combine and connect, Portugal lose a bit of this and also of flair.
“The truth is that any team that faces Portugal nowadays knows that most of the balls are addressed to Ronaldo. Even though you have players like Felix, Jota, Bernardo and others like Pedro Neto coming through, you don’t see much of that unpredictability that they are capable of providing with their clubs through line-breaking passes and in one-on-one situations.
“What Santos defines as playing well is much more important to him than what he defines as playing beautifully.”
That’s a dichotomy that has followed Santos’s reign since he took charge in 2014 and one very often brought up in his interviews.
It has also been used by extension to describe how the team behaves with Ronaldo – the general feeling is that although they may still play well with him, they play more beautifully without him.
Despite being the most successful footballer ever to wear Portugal’s shirt, with 102 goals for his country, there have been suggestions that Ronaldo actually arrived on the scene at the wrong time from an international perspective – too late to play with the golden generation of Luis Figo, Rui Costa, Joao Vieira Pinto, Fernando Couto and Paulo Sousa; too early to spend much time with the current crop of stars.
Regardless of that, he will surely be around until at least the 2022 World Cup.
“I find it controversial to state that a team performs better without its best player, particularly when you don’t have a big track record of games played in these circumstances,” says Sergio Pires, a reporter for Mais Futebol.
“But when the times comes, I believe Ronaldo will be smart enough to understand he won’t be able to start all matches any more – even if that sounds like a difficult issue to handle because of his stature in the game, his big entourage and his influence not just on the field but off it, too.
“It’s almost like a political problem, something that will require a summit to achieve an agreement on the strategy to prepare Ronaldo’s retirement from the national team. It doesn’t seem to me he will stick around if he feels he can’t contribute the same way he’s always done. It all depends on how Portugal do at the Euros and at the World Cup.”