By MARK LORENZANA
Spain started its World Cup campaign with a 7-0 rout of Costa Rica, which many soccer fans, especially fans of La Furia Roja, thought would be a portent of things to come — opponents beware.
Instead, Spain is now out of the World Cup, after a match that was level at 0-0 on Tuesday, Dec. 6, against Morocco sent both teams to a penalty shootout in their knockout match in Qatar, which Morocco won convincingly.
The biggest hero for Morocco was its goalkeeper, Yassine Bounou, who blocked three shots in the shootout. Morocco, the last Arab nation left in this tournament, which — ironically — is being hosted by another Arab nation, is now through to the quarterfinals.
Make no mistake: The Morocco win in the round of 16 was one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history. Morocco knocked off a Spain team that is ranked 7th in the world, and has a promising crop of young players that were finding their stride. Morocco, ranked 22nd, celebrated their win in front of thousands of their adoring fans, who refused to leave Education City Stadium long after the match was over.
In the other game, in what could be a changing of the guard for Cristiano Ronaldo — who was benched by Portugal coach Fernando Santos — and the Portuguese National Team, Ronaldo’s replacement, Gonçalo Ramos, scored a hat trick and lifted his team over Switzerland, 6-1.
It was a surprising — and gutsy — call for Santos, deciding to play Ramos instead of Ronaldo, but it was evidently the correct decision, as Portugal is through to the last eight.
Ronaldo’s playing career beyond this World Cup, though, is a bit murkier. Practically unemployed after a falling out with Premier League club Manchester United, Ronaldo wants to keep playing professional soccer after this tournament, but — at least for now — there have been no suitors in the way of professional teams, save for Saudi Arabian club Al Nassr, which reportedly offered the Portuguese superstar a three-year contract worth $500 million.
It remains to be seen, though, if Ronaldo will eventually land with the Saudi club; after all, he has been known to look for opportunities that would keep him relevant. Playing in the Middle East, though, as opposed to Europe, would not afford Ronaldo the relevance that he seeks — although it would make him, by far, the highest-paid athlete in the world.
And all the talk that his prospects were dimming has evidently rankled Ronaldo.
“What the press keeps saying, the garbage, is that nobody wants me, which is completely wrong,” Ronaldo told the British media in an interview, on the eve of the World Cup. “They continue to repeat that nobody wants Cristiano. How don’t they want a player who scored 32 goals last year, including with the national team?”
Portugal will face Morocco in the quarterfinals on Saturday, Dec. 10.