LUSAIL, Qatar (AP) – A chant from “RONALDO! RONALDO!” swept around the largest stadium in the world World Championship, followed by loud cheers as the fans realized their idol would not be coming onto the field.
Cristiano Ronaldo was actually sitting in the Portuguese dugout looking grumpy and still wearing a spare shirt. And the guy who started in his place on Tuesday was close to the hat-trick.
After Ronaldo was knocked out of the starting XI by a brave call from Portugal coach Fernando Santos, Goncalo Ramos – the superstar striker’s unlikely replacement – made himself an instant star by guiding the team to a 6-1 win over Switzerland and led to the World Cup quarterfinals.
Ramos, a 21-year-old forward who made his debut for Portugal just last month, demonstrated the kind of unerring finish Ronaldo was once known for, scoring the first goal in the 17th minute and more in the 51st and 51st Added 67th minute.
No player had scored a hat-trick in his first World Cup appearance since Germany striker Miroslav Klose in 2002.
“Not even in my wildest dreams did I think of being part of the starting XI for the knockout rounds,” said Ramos, an unheralded striker who plays for Benfica and has Ronaldo as his footballing idol alongside Robert Lewandowski and Zlatan Ibrahimovic considered.
Around the hour mark, fans at the 89,000-seat Lusail Stadium began begging Santos to sign the 37-year-old Ronaldo and their wish was granted in the 72nd minute. Portugal had already ended the game by then and defenders Pepe and Raphael Guerreiro had also scored. Rafael Leao added another goal in added time.
Ronaldo hasn’t scored – he’s still in the knockout stages of each of his five World Cups – and after briefly celebrating with his team-mates after the final whistle, he walked off the field alone, perhaps wondering where his career was going goes from here.
He is currently without a club after leaving Manchester United in the middle of the World Cup and he may not be the starter for his country anymore.
The rest of the Portugal team hung around to applaud their fans at one end of the stadium. With a quarter-final game against Morocco on Saturday, Santos must now decide whether to stay with Ramos or bring back Ronaldo, the top scorer in men’s international football and one of the greatest players of all time.
Santos said it was a strategic, not a disciplinary, decision to drop Ronaldo after he expressed dissatisfaction with the striker’s attitude during his Monday night press conference after he was substituted in the team’s final group game against South Korea.
“What we have to do is think about this team together,” Santos said before discussing Ronaldo. “I will always consider him a very important player in the team.”
That could now be more of a substitute and an experienced head in the dressing room than a regular.
Ramos made a surprise come on – he had only been substituted on three times for Portugal before – and took his chance.
Ramos, who was just two when Ronaldo made his debut for Portugal in 2003, scored the first hat-trick at that year’s World Cup.
He fired his left foot into the near post of Swiss goalkeeper Yann Sommer for the first goal, skilfully sliced through Sommer’s legs from close range for the second, then ran through to punch the keeper for his third goal.
Ronaldo was seen smiling as he warmed up on the sidelines after Ramos’ second goal.
“Cristiano did what he always does as our captain,” said Ramos. “He helped us and encouraged us, not only for me but also for my colleagues.”
Ramos even had an assist and played the ball through for Guerreiro to score the fourth goal.
Ronaldo was lively coming on as a substitute and even thought he’d scored as he ran through and put a flat left foot shot past Sommer. The goal was disallowed for offside, much to the annoyance of the fans – Portuguese or otherwise – who had come to see him play.
Switzerland’s only goal came in the 57th minute when Manuel Akanji tapped the far post after a corner kick.
Switzerland lost a World Cup in the round of 16 for the third time in a row. Since hosting the event in 1954, the country has not reached the quarterfinals.
Pepe took over as captain from Ronaldo and at 39 years and 283 days became the oldest player to score in the knockout stages of the World Cup.
Steve Douglas can be reached at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80
AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports