BRASILIA, Brazil -- "We go out with our heads held high," Cristiano Ronaldo told the press after Portugal's World Cup elimination. This said a lot for the reduction of expectations for Paulo Bento's squad in the 10 days from their Group G opener against Germany to what proved to be their curtain call against Ghana.
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Despite a clutch of injury concerns (the foremost of which, obviously, concerned their talisman), there had been a sense of optimism as Portugal began the competition, only fuelled by the marvellous reception they received on arrival in Brazil. Ninety chastening minutes against Die Nationalmannschaft changed all that. As Bento said in his post-mortem on Thursday, the defeat in Salvador "left its mark, in terms of morale as much as in terms of the numbers."
That cannot be underestimated as Portugal come to analyse their failure, as Bento has pledged they must. Everything that could go wrong against Germany did go wrong, but the insistence of Bento and his players on railing against the match officials rather than looking to correct their own faults did them a disservice. Losing to one of the better teams in the competition was not in itself a disaster, but the way things fell to pieces revealed fragility whose extent few had fully realised.
Speaking of fragile, plenty will pinpoint Ronaldo's imperfect fitness as the main reason behind Portugal stalling. While a lack of peak condition didn't help (as well as the circus that quickly enveloped around Ronaldo from the first time he iced his tender knee), it wasn't the decisive factor in the crash.
His industry, as always, was certainly impressive. Carefully managed in training throughout, Ronaldo left no stone unturned in Portugal's three matches. Some continue to paint him as the ultimate egotist. Anybody who saw the captain grimace through the pain in the second half at the Estadio Nacional yet continue to prompt his side would be clear on what utter nonsense this is. Playing for, and captaining, his country means everything to him. His ashen face as he walked reluctantly to the news conference was testament to that. Certainly, Ronaldo has a keen sense of his place in history, but this was more than that. Perhaps he felt this summer, following on from such a rich season, was his chance to right the wrongs of Euro 2004.
“The plainness of the matter is too many of Ronaldo's teammates have not been good enough.”
Ronaldo is used to playing through the pain with a burden on his shoulders, and it is in his nature to embrace it. He could just about have pulled Portugal through again with a bit of luck. Remarkably, the chances that came his way in the last 10 minutes of the game, after he had restored Portugal's lead, were almost sufficient to have taken his team to an improbably large win and into a round of 16 tie back in Salvador, had they been taken, as Ghana crumbled. While that would have been another rescue act in Ronaldo's growing catalogue of them for his national side, it would only have temporarily obscured the truth.
The plainness of the matter is too many of Ronaldo's teammates -- while perhaps not quite on the same galactic plane as their captain -- have not been good enough. Fitness was clearly an issue for all the Real Madrid trio of Ronaldo, Pepe and Fabio Coentrao (with the latter only lasting an hour into the tournament), and only 18 players taking part on the last few training sessions.
Yet the midfield looked hopelessly lightweight. Raul Meireles had a quiet tournament, Miguel Veloso looked short of sharpness after an interrupted season with Dynamo Kiev and even Joao Moutinho's passing was often awry, betraying a long, hard season in France. William Carvalho, rightly brought into the XI here and surely a fixture in it for years to come, looked nervous and failed to reproduce his fine form for Sporting in Brasilia. His time will come and he has the personality to become one of the team's leaders, but he was infected by the general malaise here.
As heads are scratched and assessments are made, Bento's position must surely come under review, despite Federacao Portuguesa de Futebol (FPF) president Fernando Gomes and vice-president Humberto Coelho showing their support, as well as the coach's own pledge that he would not resign and a contract that runs to 2016. There is a sense, though, that inertia has set in, with Bento's four-year anniversary approaching in October.
The personnel has changed very little in that time, with Bento reiterating postgame in Brasilia that this was "a conscious choice." Where loyalty and stability can be helpful and creating a bond and automatisms in the limited time available at international level, it can mean too many out-of-form players being in the mix. Nani, for example, would have played himself out of the international picture for many nations with his form in the last two years, but he has remained an important figure. Ricardo Quaresma, to compare, would have been a more logical pick on form, but was cut from the final 23. Bringing Eduardo as third-choice goalkeeper, rather than a star of the future like Lyon's Anthony Lopes, was also a debatable call.
Principally though, Bento's success as Portugal boss has been based on getting the best out of Ronaldo in a way that Carlos Queiroz always failed to. Here in Brazil, the team has squarely fallen short of that objective. Many complain that Ronaldo rarely passes. When he did in this World Cup, he seldom got it back.
Bento did at least admit that Portugal "must change some of our ideas." Having missed the chance to make a big mark in Brazil, the motivation to get it right in Euro 2016 in France -- another nation with plenty of residential Portuguese support -- has been made even greater.