Can Ronaldo's legacy include mentoring Joao Felix, other young Portugal stars?
Background photo: Filipe Fortes, CC BY-SA 2.0
The international break returns and, for the first time since last year's World Cup elimination, so does Cristiano Ronaldo. The Portuguese national team struck a decent run of form in his absence. Manager Fernando Santos had little trouble setting up a dangerous squad while Real Madrid's all-time scorer settled into life at the Juventus Stadium.
Ronaldo is 34. Euro 2020 could be his final major tournament although he vowed to defy time by playing until he is 40. After his veteran side couldn't progress beyond the Round of 16 and proved almost entirely reliant on CR7 for goals, Santos rebuilt around a new, younger core that includes Ruben Neves, Bruma, Bernardo and Andre Silva. Now, 19-year-old Benfica prodigy, João Félix, is attracting interest from Europe's elite clubs, forcing his way into the manager's thinking. There is no argument that Ronaldo will slide back into his previous role as talisman and captain. The question is whether he can mentor this young group with any effect.
Ronaldo's career took off when Manchester United signed him. Not only did Sir Alex Ferguson demand a strong work ethic and commitment to team from the teenager, the entire squad set an example. Paul Scholes, Rio Ferdinand, Darren Fletcher, Gary Neville and Wayne Rooney all led by example. From there, Ronaldo moved to Real Madrid. Again he was surrounded by established talent. Although he became captain for his country, others always wore the armband at the Bernabeu. When a young star came into the squad, he learned from the group. Ronaldo had only a minor obligation if any. The situation isn't much different in Turin. Juventus boast a star-studded lineup of veteran talent. Portugal has a veteran or two in the squad who have been through the wars. Joao Moutinho. Pepe. Rui Patricio. For the first time, however, Ronaldo finds himself in a largely inexperienced squad. After benefitting immensely from veteran leadership throughout his career, can he give back in equal measure?
Portugal's Euro qualifiers against Ukraine and Serbia appear winnable, especially with Ronaldo in the squad. With the window coming down on his career, though, it's a huge mistake to teach these young players to rely solely on the man who is approaching 700 career goals. Soon enough, they must find routes to goal without him. Ronaldo's responsibility is no longer simply to find the net; he must begin finding teammates with greater frequency. It is time he invites his young teammates to play with rather than for him.
There are exciting players in the squad. Moutinho, Neves and Diogo Jota comprise a strong attacking trio at Wolves. Bernardo Silva is letting his brother from another country, David, know that it's alright to retire; Manchester City is in good hands. He's also taking the pressure off Kevin de Bruyne to rush back from yet another injury. Under Pep Guardiola, the 24-year-old is well-versed in creating an 11-part harmony on the pitch. It serves no one for him to be tasked with singing backup for Ronaldo's solos. Andre Silva boasts 11 La Liga and Copa del Rey goals for Sevilla but has gone cold in 2019. He could benefit from Ronaldo's counsel.
Fernando Santos must keep faith with his young players. They must know that their international futures don't depend on how they can coexist with Ronaldo but how well they can do without him. It's on Ronaldo to help the manager instil that confidence. In the Euro 16 final, a hobbled Cristiano stood behind Santos in the technical area, shouting over his shoulder, urging his teammates to victory, at times almost pushing the boss out of the way to be heard. He wanted comrades to complete what he could not finish. That attitude will serve him and Portugal well as the curtain falls on his career.