Cristiano Ronaldo has scored 7.5% of his 120 international goals for Portugal against Luxembourg. No opponent has been on the receiving end of Ronaldo’s ruthless finishing more than the European football minnows, so it’s safe to assume he will be anticipating Sunday’s Euro 2024 qualifier in Stade de Luxembourg with relish.
Ronaldo, 38, is now at the stage of his career where every game could offer him a last chance to add to his incredible list of records and achievements, so extending his goal and appearance milestones will be at the top of his priority list. That he is even preparing to face Luxembourg at all is perhaps an unexpected bonus considering how his past six months have played out for club and country.
Released by Manchester United during a messy split last November, which saw Ronaldo’s contract cancelled by mutual consent, his move to Al Nassr in Saudi Arabia signaled a sharp downturn in the former Real Madrid and Juventus forward’s club career. Then his 2022 World Cup ended on a sour note with quarterfinal exit against Morocco, having been dropped by coach Fernando Santos for the 6-1 rout of Switzerland in the round of 16 where his replacement, Goncalo Ramos, scored a hat trick.
Add in the dent to his professional pride of having to watch long-time rival Lionel Messi dominate, and win, the World Cup with Argentina, and Ronaldo could be forgiven for believing he had been sucked into a twilight zone, left to play out his days in the obscurity of the Saudi Pro League. But despite having the perfect opportunity to draw a line under Ronaldo’s glittering international career by consigning him to the past, new Portugal coach Roberto Martinez has chosen to keep him in the squad, saying: “I do not look at age — Ronaldo is very important for the team.”
Perhaps Martinez is merely being respectful to Portugal’s greatest-ever player by allowing him the opportunity to become the first footballer to make 200 international appearances, before moving on to the future. It’s not as though the former Belgium coach is short of attacking options with Rafael Leao, Joao Felix, Diogo Jota and Ramos also at his disposal, but for the 4-0 win against Liechtenstein on Thursday, Leao, Jota and Ramos all started on the bench, while Ronaldo led the forward line, scored twice and wore the captain’s armband to become the most-capped men’s player of all time on 197.
If he remains fit and is selected, Ronaldo will break the 200-game mark in the Euro 2024 qualifier against Iceland in Reykjavik on June 20, so that could yet spell the end of his international career if Martinez decides to start fresh next season. But Ronaldo has made countless sacrifices to enjoy a remarkable career spanning two decades, so don’t discount his chances of remaining in the Portugal team right through to the Euro 2024 finals in Germany.
He will be 39 by then, with 18 months of life in the slow lane in Saudi Arabia behind him, but perhaps the move to Riyadh was another sacrifice with the end goal of extending his international career to the Euros. It was obviously not a financial sacrifice on Ronaldo’s part to move to Al Nassr, where he has become the world’s highest-paid player at $75 million a year, but he is no longer putting his body through the intensity of performing in the Premier League for one of football’s biggest clubs.
If his time in Saudi Arabia helps to conserve his energy and extend his career, moving away from the spotlight in Europe might prove just as important as those afternoons as a youngster during his first spell at United back in 2003, when he would strap weights to his ankles and return to a deserted training pitch to practice his stepover dribbles and free kicks.
Ronaldo’s career has always been a case study in doing everything possible to squeeze every drop from his natural ability and, as he enters the final phase of that career, the switch to Saudi Arabia might be as strategic as it is lucrative.
If tiny Luxembourg thought, or hoped, they had seen the last of him, then they will have to think again. The last time Ronaldo faced Sunday’s opponents, he scored a hat trick to take his personal tally against Les Lions Rouges to nine goals — two more than the seven he has amassed against each of Lithuania and Sweden.
Overall, he has now scored 120 goals in 197 appearances for Portugal. Every game he plays sets an international record and every goal also counts, because his old rival Messi has now scored 99 for Argentina.
If he sticks around for the remainder of the Euro 2024 qualifying campaign, Ronaldo knows he will have to face Luxembourg and Liechtenstein again. He will also back himself to score against other group rivals Slovakia, Iceland and Bosnia & Herzegovina. So if he can just keep scoring to the point of making it impossible for the 35-year-old Messi to catch him, it could be the final achievement of Ronaldo’s career. And one that will give him immense satisfaction.