College football and soccer analyst
DOHA, Qatar — Cristiano Ronaldo was inconsolable. As perhaps the final whistle blew over his World Cup career, tears streamed down the superstar’s cheeks.
Moroccan defender Achraf Dari tried to put his arm around Ronaldo as he slowly made his way to the tunnel and the dressing room. But the 37-year-old Portuguese captain chased the 23-year-old away and kept walking.
Once inside the tunnel, shielded from the rowdy Moroccan fans who were still cheering and celebrating, Ronaldo’s face twisted and he squeezed the bridge of his nose. The tears kept coming. And the cameras captured them.
Emotional Cristiano Ronaldo leaves the field
Cristiano Ronaldo goes to the dressing room after Portugal were knocked out by Morocco during the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
Ronaldo, one of the greatest players ever, will probably never win his most coveted trophy.
Just as Neymar’s dream of winning this World Cup for his home country ended on Friday evening, so did Ronaldo’s on Saturday. Among the legends in this tournament, only Lionel Messi has any hope after Argentina’s wild victory in penalties the night before.
Saturday was historic for Morocco, which became the first African team to reach the semi-finals of the World Cup on Saturday with a 1-0 win over Portugal at Al Thumama Stadium.
Yet Ronaldo soared above it all.
The match started with an exciting build-up. Moroccan fans outnumbered Portuguese fans by the thousands, and she whistled incessantly throughout the game – incredibly distracting noises that fell outside the decibel charts.
After 42 minutes, the Atlas lions scored. Left back Yahia Attiyat Allah fired a perfect ball from the left into the center of the box and Youssef En-Nesyri hovered over goalkeeper Diogo Costa to head the ball into the back of the net.
Al Thumama was already deafening, and this moment blew out the eardrums. En-Nesryri had just scored the first World Cup goal in Moroccan history. At that time, Ronaldo was nowhere to be seen, as the global superstar did not start this match.
It was the second game in a row that manager Fernando Santos thought it more sensible to bench Ronaldo, a decision that attracted huge attention in the run-up to the game.
Tuesday’s victory over Switzerland was the first World Cup match that Ronaldo did not start for his national team since 2006. The initial decision was met with strong criticism, but Portugal won 6-1 and Ronaldo’s replacement, the 21-year-old Goncalo Ramos, scored a hat-trick. Santos said after that match that putting Ronaldo on the bench was tactical and not personal.
So Santos did the same against a disciplined and emotional Moroccan team striving to make history. Was it the wrong decision this time? Even a FIFA official walking down the steps of the stadium with his colleague after the game said casually, “I can’t believe he had Ronaldo on the bench.” His colleague’s answer: “Yes, but Morocco deserves this.”
Does Santos regret not starting Ronaldo?
“No,” said the manager afterwards. “I don’t think so. No regrets. No regrets. I think this was a team that played really well against Switzerland. Cristiano is a great player. He came in when we thought he needed to. So no, I have no regrets .”
Last week, Ronaldo played the role of a good soldier. There were reports earlier this week that he threatened to leave the national team and Qatar after Santos benched him, but Santos later clarified that those rumors were untrue. And he doesn’t think the drama affected the game.
“I think if we take two people who were most upset about this match, it might have been Cristiano Ronaldo and myself,” said Santos. “Of course we are angry. Of course it affects us. But that is part of the game.”
Ronaldo remained on the bench to start the second half. He walked through the tunnel after the break, still wearing his yellow change shirt, and spoke to a team coach and reserve goalkeeper Rui Patricio with their hands over their mouths so people couldn’t read their lips.
As soon as the half started, Ronaldo started to warm up on the sidelines. His eyes darted from Morocco and took a free kick on one side to the Atlas lions crowd of fans jumping up and down on the other side. He took a deep breath and kept stretching.
In the 51st minute he was substituted into the game and the stadium erupted – it was louder at that moment than at any other time of the night. Perhaps even the Moroccan fans cheered. This was their last moment to watch one of the best players of all time play in a World Cup, even if he was on the opposing team.
And the stage was set for a save-the-day hero moment.
It felt like Ronaldo’s presence on the pitch, at least for a few minutes, shocked Portugal. His attack became more intense and precise, and A Selacao had opportunities. At one point, Portugal conceded three corners in a row, but failed to convert any.
Bruno Fernandes shot just over the goal from the top of the penalty area in the 64th minute. The Portuguese midfielder later got a superb cross that goalkeeper Yassine Bounou caught before Ronaldo could head past him. In the 83rd minute, Felix fired a shot that would have gone in had Bounou not dived to save it.
The heroic moment never came.
Cristiano Ronaldo came SO CLOSE to equalizing
Cristiano Ronaldo had a great chance to tie the game for Portugal in the 90+1 minute, but was stopped by a save from Moroccan goalkeeper Bono.
Morocco sat back in the second half, remained dangerous in the counter-attack and Portugal could not finish anything.
“Sometimes in football we need a bit of luck and that was not the case,” said Santos. “In our last game we had a beautiful goal from a corner kick, but that didn’t happen this time. We also saw in extra time that our players were anxious.
“The reason why we are angry is because we thought we could reach the final and win.”
Morocco leveled Croatia in the group stage, then beat Belgium, Canada, Spain and now Portugal, conceding just one goal.
Next up for the team is England or France, a semi-final scheduled for Wednesday that should provide theater (2pm on FOX and the FOX Sports app).
“We are going to be the team everyone loves at this World Cup,” Moroccan manager Walid Regragui said. “I think we are the ‘Rocky’ of this World Cup.”
Yet Ronaldo and his tears were in the spotlight for the last time.
Regragui was asked afterwards if he was concerned when Ronaldo came on in the second half.
“I know he can score out of nowhere,” said Regragui.
This time, however, he didn’t.
Read more of the World Cup:
Laken Litman covers college football, college basketball, and soccer for FOX Sports. She previously wrote for Sports Illustrated, USA Today, and The Indianapolis Star. She is the author of ‘Strong Like a Woman’, published in spring 2022 to mark the 50th anniversary of Title IX. Follow her on Twitter @LakeLitman.
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