Portugal take nothing for granted as Cristiano Ronaldo aims for one last World Cup

Ronaldo is desperate to reach one final World Cup

“Finals are very difficult,” shrugged Fernando Santos, prodded with the still-being-absorbed shock of North Macedonia, rather than Italy, making it to face Portugal in Tuesday’s World Cup qualifying play-off final. “They are there to be won, and there’s nothing else to discuss.”

If those words fell from other lips they’d be cliché but the long-serving Portugal coach has earned his cautious demeanour, and he is wise to sense the mood of his countrymen – and not just because they flirted with sporting disaster in the second half of Thursday’s victory over Turkey in Porto, which ended up being way more tense than it probably should have been. It had been almost eight and a half years since Portugal needed a playoff to qualify for a major tournament finals, when Cristiano Ronaldo singlehandedly put away Sweden to send them to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, effectively winning himself the Ballon d’Or in the process.

Yet that run of three play-offs in a row – facing Bosnia and Herzegovina to qualify for the 2010 World Cup and then for Euro 2012 before coming up against the Swedes in November 2013 – has left a mark on the collective consciousness of the country’s football fans and media. The second-half wobble in the Dragão on Thursday night was in “our tradition of suffering right to the end”, as A Bola put it, “which was mostly their [the team’s] own fault”, in the words of the daily’s Nuno Vieira. After a strong start Portugal stuttered after the break, retreating into themselves as they had in fluffing their lines in the final qualifying group game against Serbia in Lisbon. Had Burak Yilmaz not hit an 85th-minute penalty over the top… well, the nation could barely bring itself to consider the rest.

Santos is relatively inscrutable at the best of times, but when he strolled off the Dragão pitch at the end, leaving some of his celebrating and relieved players behind, he reached into his jacket pocket, took out a packet of cigarettes and posed one in his mouth. It was the closest a man whose forehead rarely moves would get to a deep exhale. A lot of those watching knew how he felt. It had been nervy until substitute Matheus Nunes, deep into stoppage-time, steered home the clincher.

The veteran coach, a man who led his country to their first-ever major trophy with Euro 2016 (and has since won the inaugural Nations League too), has been under an increasingly intense gaze in recent months. Having taken to national television to explain himself the day after the late defeat against Serbia which snatched away automatic qualification for Qatar and condemned Portugal to the play-offs, Santos has been in the recurring position of having to self-justify. There has been an uncomfortable push-pull motion to Portugal, increasingly, since the glory of 2016. The tournament in France was won against the odds by the 67-year-old’s obduracy, his credo of the result is all that matters. Since then, the profile of the players in his squad has gradually but markedly changed. There have been doubts that a coach of Santos’s circumspection can provide the framework for talent from Bernardo Silva to João Félix to flourish. The jury is very much still out.

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During that television appearance in November, he defended his record. “Up to this point, all our targets have been fulfilled,” he told TVI. “The day that we don’t meet a target, I’ll go.” Beating North Macedonia and sealing safe passage to Qatar would, by Santos’s yardstick, be another target hit. It all depends on your perspective of those objetivos, though. Qualifying for tournaments, with Portugal’s senior talent pool, is an absolute bare minimum. The Nations League triumph was nice but, in the two major tournaments since France, Portugal have exited in the last 16 both times. With a far more talented squad than in 2016, it’s underwhelming.

In the aftermath of the Serbia reverse, some questioned his relationship with Ronaldo, though Santos insisted his “personal and professional relationship with [all] the players is excellent”. Ronaldo still recognises that Santos’s plan in 2016, placing the mobile Nani next to him to take away some of the physical load after a long, hard season, was key to Portugal’s triumph. What is paramount now is that Portugal not only get to Qatar, but that they don’t waste what is likely to be their icon’s final shot at the World Cup. They may not be favourites but João Cancelo (who returns from suspension for Tuesday’s game), the currently injured Rúben Dias, João Félix, Bruno Fernandes, Diogo Jota and company all offer the possibility of at least a glorious, satisfying final chapter at the World Cup for Ronaldo.

Before we get to that though, don’t assume that victory over North Macedonia is a given. Santos and his fellow Portuguese have bitten too many nails in the past to do that.

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