You’d have to go back to October 2019 to remember the last time the Portugal national football team lost a game. The Selecao have become one of the most formidable sides in Europe since winning Euro 2016. That historic triumph in France – the country’s first major silverware – marked the beginning of the end of Portugal’s over-dependence on their talismanic captain Cristiano Ronaldo.
The five-time Ballon d’Or winner was taken off injured during the final of Euro 2016 and watched on from the bench as his teammates defeated hosts France 1-0 to lift the coveted trophy.
Cristiano Ronaldo has been Portugal’s main man for over a decade and the team has relied on him for goals and inspiration. The Selecao were often criticized for underperforming in the absence of their star player, despite having several talented youngsters in their squad.
Back when Cristiano Ronaldo played his first international tournament at Euro 2004, he was part of a star-studded cast that boasted the likes of Luis Figo, Rui Costa and Deco. Ronaldo wasn't the main man as a 19-year-old and was only beginning to make his mark on the international scene.
Ten years later, when Ronaldo captained Portugal at the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, it was evident that the team had become a one-man show. It was Cristiano Ronaldo's hat-trick against Sweden that confirmed World Cup qualification for Portugal in the first place, and the team fell apart whenever their skipper wasn't on the pitch.
Six years later, when Portugal took on Andorra on Wednesday, it was clear that the over-reliance on Ronaldo was a thing of the past. Portugal coach Fernando Santos has successfully built a team that can perform in the absence of the former Manchester United star.
Cristiano Ronaldo started on the bench against Andorra, and by the time he entered the fray, his side was already leading 5-0. The Selecao eventually won the game 7-0, with Ronaldo scoring the sixth goal.
In his six years as Portugal boss, Santos has done well to play to the strengths of his squad. The manager isn't afraid to place faith in other players when Cristiano Ronaldo isn't available.
The situation is also aided by the fact that Portugal currently boasts some of the best talent in Europe. The 66-year-old head coach can afford to bench his captain and still field a formidable starting XI.
Santos’ pool of attacking options includes Liverpool's Diogo Jota, Manchester United's Bruno Fernandes, Atletico Madrid's Joao Felix, Manchester City's Bernardo Silva, and Barcelona startlet Trincao.
Cristiano Ronaldo has already indicated that he will retire from the national team after the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Portugal will miss his goals once he hangs his boots, but there’s more than enough talent to fill in.
In the last two years, Portugal have shown they can play well without their talisman. They made it to the semi-final of the 2019 UEFA Nations League without Ronaldo, before he joined the team for the last two matches and helped them emerge victorious.
Cristiano Ronaldo battled COVID-19 earlier this season but even in his absence, Portugal continued to win. The Selecao are scoring goals for fun and their recent performances are clear proof that the team is no longer over-reliant on Ronaldo.