Portugal coach Fernando Santos dropped Cristiano Ronaldo to the bench for the last-16 meeting with Switzerland and was rewarded with a hat-trick from replacement Goncalo Ramos and a stunning team display.
Santos expressed his displeasure at gestures made by Ronaldo when he was substituted in the last group game against South Korea and it was the first time in 31 games stretching back to 2008 that he has not started in a major tournament.
Portugal made light of the 37-year-old’s absence to put it mildly as 21-year-old Benfica striker Ramos hit a treble on his first international start to help set up a quarter-final against surprise package Morocco after their win against Spain on penalties.
Ramos started the rout after 17 minutes when he drilled a finish past Swiss keeper Jan Sommer at the near post before veteran 39-year-old defender Pepe doubled Portugal’s lead when he headed home Bruno Fernandes’ corner in the 33rd minute.
Twenty-one-year-old Ramos was two years old when Ronaldo made his debut for Portugal. He had played fewer than 35 minutes of international football before tonight, making his debut last month. He had never started for his country before. The pressure was on. And he did not disappoint.
Portugal played like a team – interdependent, connected. For the first time this tournament, they looked like they could win it.
Switzerland’s Manuel Akanji turned the ball in at the far post from a beautifully weighted cross for a consolation goal in the 56th minute but it could not herald a turn in the tide of the game.
Joao Felix made way for Ronaldo to a huge ovation in the 72nd minute, winning his 195th cap for Portugal after fans chanted his name in this 90,000-seater stadium for a quarter of an hour. A spectacular effort from the veteran striker in the 82nd minute was ruled as offside.
Rafael Leao, 23, scored with a wonderful finish in the 91st minute to leave Portugal facing Morocco in the quarter-finals on Saturday afternoon, before England take on France.
But the question marks over Ronaldo’s future remain. Without a club, after a spectacular media implosion ended his time at Manchester United, and now with a natural replacement lined up in the national team, Ronaldo cut a lonely figure at the end of the match.
As the Portuguese team applauded their fans behind the goal, Ronaldo wandered off towards the tunnel alone.