When Roberto Martinez was appointed as Portugal’s manager, the reaction was notably lukewarm. This wasn’t necessarily a reflection on Martinez himself; rather, it stemmed from Portugal’s deep-rooted footballing culture, which traditionally prides itself on homegrown managerial icons. Fernando Santos, the outgoing manager in 2022, left a substantial legacy, but an equally significant challenge for the Catalan Martinez.

Portugal’s forward #07 Cristiano Ronaldo (C) runs during a training session of Portugal’s national football team, during the UEFA Euro 2024 European football Championship(AFP)

A crucial part of this challenge was Cristiano Ronaldo. As one of the greatest athletes in sports history, Ronaldo was at a career juncture where opinions about him were increasingly polarized, particularly on social media. During the FIFA World Cup in 2022, Santos made the bold decision to bench Ronaldo for the round-of-16 match against Switzerland, a game Portugal won decisively with a 6-1 scoreline.

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Reports from December last year indicated that Santos and Ronaldo were still not on speaking terms following this controversial decision. Ronaldo was reinstated in the starting lineup for the quarter-final, where Portugal suffered a surprising defeat to Morocco.

Martinez inherited a team in transition and a star player whose role was under intense scrutiny. The mixed sentiments around Ronaldo added to the complexity of Martinez’s task. He had to manage not just the tactical and technical aspects of the team, but also navigate the delicate interpersonal dynamics involving one of football’s biggest legends.

The situation demanded careful balancing; respecting Ronaldo’s immense contributions while also fostering a cohesive and forward-looking team environment.

Ronaldo’s club career wasn’t running smooth, either. He came to the World Cup on the back of a highly publicised feud with Manchester United’s manager Erik Ten Hag after the Dutch manager, too, had benched Ronaldo in the Premier League. The Portugal forward left the club ahead of the January transfer window to join Saudi Arabian club, Al Nassr. Controversy was, thus, expected when Martinez took over as manager. Many were convinced there would be friction between Ronaldo and Martinez, but what eventually panned out was the complete opposite.

Despite initial skepticism, Martinez has worked to integrate Ronaldo effectively into the squad, maintaining his presence without making him the sole focus. Initially, there were fears that Martinez’s decision might backfire spectacularly in footballing terms, yet the outcome has been quite the opposite. The issue many anticipated never materialized, and Ronaldo has continued to be a valuable player.

Throughout the qualifying matches, Ronaldo netted 10 goals. What’s changed, however, is that Ronaldo, who has long been a focal point of Portugal’s talented attacking unit, is now a part of the collective effort with other players stepping up as their central figures.

Not just Ronaldo, anymore

If the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem had to look like a nail. Martinez realised this pretty early in his stint as Portugal’s manager, and worked on diversifying the attacking roles in the squad.

Behind the team’s core stars in the critical 26-29 age bracket, such as Ruben Dias, Joao Palhinha, Bruno Fernandes, and Bernardo Silva, emerging talents like Goncalo Inacio, Antonio Silva, and Joao Neves are already making their presence felt.

Despite the immense stature of Cristiano Ronaldo, who is undoubtedly a cultural icon for Portugal more than just a footballing one, the squad’s approach to him has evolved. Gone are the days of reverential addressals about his presence. Instead, there is a healthy appreciation for his contributions, recognizing him as a valuable team member without overshadowing the collective effort.

Bruno Fernandes has become a pivotal figure in the team’s strategy, often directing play and distributing the ball to key players like Bernardo Silva, Joao Felix, Rafael Leao, Diogo Jota, and, of course, Ronaldo. It makes sense, too. Fernandes adopts an almost similar role at Manchester United, too, where he is the current captain. It may have not been an ideal club season for Fernandes, but his own performances have been influential, with him ending the season on a high as he orchestrated United’s incredible 2-1 FA Cup win over arch-rivals Manchester City.

It hardly comes as a surprise that Fernandes ended as the highest assist-maker in the Euro 2024 qualifying (8), while Portugal scored the most goals (36).

‘He’s still on merit’

One cannot ignore the fact that Cristiano Ronaldo has slowed down in recent years. However, his goalscoring instinct remains undiminished, and Roberto Martinez is well aware of this. Despite Al Nassr’s trophyless season in the Saudi Pro League last year, Ronaldo’s performance was remarkable. He found the back of the net 50 times in 51 matches, demonstrating his enduring prowess as a striker.

This strategic shift in the Portugal’s side reflects a more balanced and dynamic team approach, utilizing the skills of various players to create a more unpredictable and versatile offensive game.

“Cristiano is in the team on merit, no one gets in by having a name,” Martinez said in the pre-match press conference ahead of the side’s Euro 2024 opener against Czech Republic.

“He scored 51 goals in 50 games and he scored 10 in qualifying.

“For us he’s a goalscorer, someone who can make that final move, stretch defenders, open spaces. He has changed his way of playing slightly, but he’s in on merit and the numbers are there to back that up.”

Portugal enter the Euro 2024 as one of the strong contenders for the title, and this team, with its creative style of play and a strong blend of leadership and youthful exuberance, looks even stronger than the one that lifted the title eight years ago.

 

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