Equal Time: Portugal is prepared for life after Cristiano Ronaldo
Cristiano Ronaldo's place as Portugal's greatest player is sealed. When dusk falls on a talisman's career, the national team is often reluctant to move forward. Fernando Santos' young squad represents the perfect time to do just that.
Wild celebrations met Portugal’s Euro 2016 triumph. It was vindication not just for Ronaldo but the entire side. A dozen years after being overturned on home soil by Greece, Portugal turned the tables. The Selecao displayed character, guts and courage to reach the final then grind out a result against hosts France. The achievement was even more stunning considering Ronaldo was forced off with a ligament injury in the first half.
Amid the jubilation, Santos must have known luck played a part. His roster averaged nearly 30, the tournament's oldest group. Of the 23-man contingent, 10 were in their 30s, including a tired Ricardo Carvalho. Another half-dozen were in their late 20s. At the time, transition wasn't in the national team's lexicon.
A roll call of managers failed to effectively apply it. Integration was dead on arrival despite the country's massive talent pool. Carvalho and Bruno Alves, with a combined age of almost 80, remained relevant.
Following the Euros, Santos embraced change. The dismantling process began on the road to World Cup. There was no going back in Russia. Ten members of the Euro squad were sacrificed. Although the Selecao fell to Uruguay in the second round, Santos made some progress balancing his ageing team.
As expected, the ex-Porto manager didn't stop there. Santos injected more fresh blood during the September international window. Ronaldo’s absence offered RB Leipzig winger Bruma a rare cap. Despite the added pressure of donning his idol's jersey, the 23-year-old dazzled against Italy, providing the assist for Andre Silva's goal.
Silva benefitted as the attack's focal point. With CR7's shadow no longer blocking out the floodlights, the 22-year-old Milan poacher discovered how it felt when everyone worked for him, especially namesake Bernardo. The Manchester City playmaker enjoyed free license to roam the final third, covering space without worrying about tracking back.
Wolverhampton's young Ruben Neves (21) and evergreen William Carvalho (26) handled that. Neves' dynamism was complimented by Carvalho's physicality. Bruno Fernandes (24) and Renato Sanches (21) form a similar dynamic, as do Sergio Oliveira and Sporting Lisbon’s 19-year-old Gedson Fernandes. Santos has options.
Portuguese prospects are scattered across Europe. Goncalo Guedes incredible campaign provoked a permanent switch to Valencia from Paris Saint-Germain. Gelson Martins is adjusting to Atletico Madrid. Monaco can't do without Rony Lopez. Diogo Jota, Luri Medeiros and Carlos Mane are targetting their places, too.
The defence remains heavily dependent on pantomime villain Pepe who is now 35. With time, the tsunami will sweep away the former Real Madrid troublemaker. Ruben Dias, Paulo Oliveira and even Manchester United's Diogo Dalot are exciting youngsters who might do a decent job.
Ronaldo will be missed when he says goodbye. By the end of Euro 2020, he may have almost doubled Luis Figo's previously unreachable cap total. The 33-year-old is on course to triple Figo's goal tally.
Soon, however, Santos's young stars won't be red dwarfs in Ronaldo's supergiant. Everyone will be relevant in the Portuguese galaxy. It's what they've always needed.