The Portuguese papers have been obsessed this week with the story of Cristiano Ronaldo purchasing the £230,000 model of the Aston Martin which appears in the James Bond movie ‘No Time to Die’.
None of them ventured to suggest that the player, much like Daniel Craig — the actor who drove the DBS Superleggera — might be about to step away from his ultimate stage.
It is a real possibility, though. The 10 days ahead could be the 37-year-old’s last in international football, given the challenge Portugal face in the World Cup play-offs.
Cristiano Ronaldo is now seen as being a ‘political problem’ for both club and country
Ronaldo, whose career for the Selecao has spanned four World Cups, leads the nation into a play-off semi-final against Turkey in Porto’s Estadio do Dragao on Thursday and, if they win, probably face the mother of all knockouts against Italy, five days later.
Affection for Ronaldo is as profound as ever in his home nation, where ensuring he is granted a World Cup swansong in Qatar seems more of a concern than the 2016 European champions actually getting there.
But while it is blasphemy to say it too publicly, the question of whether Portugal are actually better without him has been circulating for more than a year and is certainly not receding.
There are suggestions that Portugal could actually be a better team without Ronaldo
‘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,’ said Sergio Pires of Mais Futebol, hedging his bets.
‘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.’
Yes, the sample size is small. But Portugal have not lost a game without Ronaldo in the team since September 2014.
And they hammered Croatia 4-1 without him in a Nations League game in September 2020, which many Portuguese journalists considered the best performance in the eight years coach Fernando Santos has been at the helm.
The star performers that day — Bruno Fernandes, Bernardo Silva, Diogo Jota and Joao Felix — bore out the view of many that this is the best collection of individuals ever assembled in one Portugal squad.
‘They are brilliant individuals, not to mention our defenders like Pepe, Joao Cancelo and Ruben Dias,’ says another source, who has watched the team from close quarters.
Despite his quality and experience, Ronaldo has also experienced some frustration at United
‘But it is different when Cristiano plays. Cristiano is an important player but the players all want to play for him and all are conscious they have to pass the ball in for him.
‘We have a saying here that, ‘the team is Ronaldo plus 10′. The team is more relaxed without him. The team is better without him.’
It is similar to the conflicted picture witnessed this season at Manchester United, where Ronaldo is a far more popular leader than captain Harry Maguire, yet some of the younger players find it hard to live with his on-field standards.
But Santos has been reluctant to let go of him and other old hands. Joao Moutinho still starts at 35, when many feel Porto’s Otavio is a better player than the Wolves midfielder. Atletico Madrid’s Joao Felix does not always start. Bruno Fernandes has sometimes operated on the left, by no means his natural domain.
It is against this backdrop that many question why Ronaldo is still so fundamental for Santos. The 67-year-old is not going to change his plan now, though.
‘I don’t think any team in the world can perform better when its best player is not around,’ he has said of Ronaldo.
This coach has always been viewed as a pragmatist and however predictable Portugal might be with Ronaldo leading the line, his calculation is simple. He increases the chances of a goal when Portugal are in the final third.
Portugal coach Fernando Santos still views Ronaldo as a fundamental part of his team
Turkey are likely to be brushed aside this week. Their dreadful European campaign last summer suggested they are nothing to fear. But the Italians are a different proposition.
‘I spoke with him and we joked about the possible Portugal v Italy match,’ said defender Leonardo Bonucci. ‘Cristiano knows he will suffer some blows.’
Ronaldo’s hat-trick against Spurs last Saturday has been in the Portuguese press. ‘History-maker,’ said Correio da Manha. That performance, just when he was being written off, reinforces Santos’ belief that his talisman will deliver the X-factor.
Santos said: ‘We need to win. Nothing else matters. We must be in the World Cup for our people.’