Portugal’s best footballers assembled in Lisbon this week amid the jingle of freshly-minted medals. There was Rafael Leao, still beaming about the Serie A title he played such a large part in seizing for AC Milan. Goalkeeper Rui Patricio was there with something novel in his luggage: a first place in the inaugural Europa Conference League, achieved with Roma.
The Manchester City cohort, Bernardo Silva and Joao Cancelo checked in with their Premier League gongs, as Ruben Dias would have done but for the fact he is recuperating from injury.
Liverpool’s Diogo Jota touched down with tales to tell about his two English Cups, FA and League, and his narrow-miss silver medals from the league and Champions League.
William Carvalho has his Spanish Copa del Rey with Real Betis. Then there’s the Paris Saint-Germain pair, Danilo and Nuno Mendes, whose club strolled to the Ligue 1 title, and the trio from Porto – Otavio, Vitinha and the veteran Pepe – who have regained the Portuguese league title.
The captain of the national squad congratulated each of them and then quickly moved the focus on, to the two international titles on his and their agenda before the end of 2022. No Portugal player will approach qualifying for the next Uefa Nations League finals and the World Cup with as much intensity as the captain, the veteran Cristiano Ronaldo.
He will also recognise there are questions being whispered about his mobility and endurance, and that it is an unusual summer camp when he is not the man receiving applause from compatriots for his achievements in the previous season.
The last of the eight league crowns Ronaldo lists on his honours is Serie A in 2019-20, the second title of his three years at Juventus. The last silverware was the 2021 Italian Cup. Last Saturday night, he watched nine of his former team-mates at Real Madrid catch up with his tally of European Cups by winning their fifth. He has not won club football’s biggest prize since 2018.
On Thursday, before the Uefa Nations League meeting between Spain and Portugal, Ronaldo will congratulate Dani Carvajal, Nacho and Marco Asensio, the Spain internationals from Madrid’s jubilant squad, on those medals. It was a significant milestone his former club achieved in Paris by beating Liverpool – a first European Cup triumph in more than 20 years for Madrid that had not been propelled by Ronaldo’s match-winning contributions in, or on the way to, the final.
If he watched the Madrid celebrations with a generous, shared thrill, he cannot help but have reflected that the impetus he was asked to give his two employers since Madrid.
Juventus wanted him to deliver Champions League glory; Manchester United, who he joined for a second spell last August, wanted his goals to simply deliver a trophy – was not realised. His club football has become frustrating. If he stays with United, he will go into the new season without a prospect of playing in the Champions League. That has not happened to him since he was 17.
This season is only the third time as a senior professional he has gone a full campaign without any sort of prize. That may encourage Ronaldo to listen a little harder to the interest from the likes of Roma – who finished sixth in Serie A – in taking him on ahead of a 2022-23 during which he will turn 38.
But an equal priority is to prepare himself physically and psychologically for a glorious swansong to an astonishing international career. Plot the next six months as Ronaldo would desire, and he will be playing his 199th match for his country in the Lusail Stadium in Qatar on December 18. That’s the date of the World Cup final.
Are Portugal contenders? A far less gifted squad than they have now triumphed at the European Championship in 2016.
In the Ronaldo era, which encompasses the last four World Cups, he has never been beyond the first knockout round. Yet the arguments that the current crop of players should aspire to much better, and to at least a semi-final, are powerful.
Ronaldo is among a brilliant range of attacking options that head coach Fernando Santos picks from: United’s Bruno Fernandes, Bernardo Silva, Jota, the rapidly-rising Rafael of Milan, and Atletico Madrid’s Joao Felix – absent from the Spain game because of injury – among others.
Or, better put, they are the options the coach picks to line up around Ronaldo. Asked on Wednesday to sum up the captain’s status in a national team that is gradually approaching the day it must plan for a future without him, Santos said simply: “He’s the best in the world.”