Scars from Cristiano Ronaldo's past with Carlos Queiroz could resurface as Portugal face Iran in crucial World Cup game
If there is one man with a real inkling about how best to interrupt Cristiano Ronaldo’s imperial march through this World Cup, it is a 65-year-old manager meticulously preparing to combat Portugal on Monday evening.
Carlos Queiroz, the long-serving manager of an Iran side who need to beat the Portuguese to leapfrog them in Group B, has guided Ronaldo’s career as boy and man.
Queiroz has seen all sides of him: the prodigy who needed the right guidance and nurture, and indeed protection; and also the highly-strung, ultra competitive and critical senior player who does not hide his irritation when those around him do not set standards as elevated as his own.
Queiroz, a Mozambique-born Portuguese citizen, started out in coaching in Portugal, specialising in youth development. But he has been a wanderer to all parts for most of his career. He first knew of Ronaldo as a gifted kid from Madeira who had been scooped up into Sporting Club’s famed academy in Lisbon.
Queiroz was once a Sporting manager. By the time Ronaldo was making his precocious way in the game, Queiroz was working at the grandest clubs of Europe, Manchester United and Real Madrid. It was he who, while deputy to Alex Ferguson at United, recommended that Ronaldo be signed with no delay.
It was a fabulously fruitful piece of advice, and Queiroz and Ronaldo developed a close bond in Manchester, too close in the eyes of some United players. This was at least according to accounts of a hot-tempered exchange former United striker Ruud van Nistelrooy once had with Ronaldo, implying Queiroz showed favouritism towards the Portuguese player.
Van Nistelrooy was the aggressor in that case, and if United’s coaches were paternal in their dealings with the young Ronaldo, they were doing so with player’s well-being at heart.
Queiroz has a long and mixed history with the World Cup. He guided Portugal’s Under 20 side to wins in the youth version of the competition twice, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but failed to take the seniors to the 1994 tournament in the United States.
He qualified South Africa for the 2002 finals, but lost the job before that tournament kicked off. His growing reputation as a club manager led Portugal to ask him to take over their seniors again in 2008.
He made Ronaldo his permanent captain immediately. But the partnership had its tensions. Ronaldo scored no goals in a stuttering World Cup qualifying campaign, indeed had gone 16 months without an international goal when Portugal reached South Africa for the 2010 finals, via a play-off.
Portugal made the last-16 stage - Ronaldo broke his drought in a 7-0 thrashing of North Korea - but there they lost to Spain. The Portugal captain was asked immediately after the defeat what had gone wrong.
Pointedly, he said: “Ask Queiroz.”
Ronaldo never played again under Queiroz, who lingered as Portugal manager for another few months. He and Ronaldo these days talk of their mutual respect, but there are a few men in the current Portugal team who recall the Queiroz era without much joy.
Take Pepe, the central defender. He spoke about problems in the Portugal camp in 2010 once the manager had departed. Queiroz snapped back.
“Pepe should keep quiet,” Queiroz told Portuguese media, adding, quotably. “He reminds me of a bad actor in a Brazilian soap opera.”
Some old scars, then, that might be scratched in Saransk on Monday night. A draw would put Ronaldo and company in the next round, and provided Spain do not lose to Morocco, Spain would then join Portugal in the last 16.
Should the Iberian giants achieve the same results, tie-breakers would apply. If they both lose, Queiroz’s team would finish top, and take only one of Spain or Portugal with them into the knockouts.
It might turn out a tense and complicated night. One man, the World Cup’s leading goalscorer going into the weekend, is in the sort of form to simplify equations swiftly.
How do you stop Ronaldo, Queiroz was asked ahead of their reunion? “Well, I could suggest to the Portugal coach, Fernando Santos, he should rest Ronaldo for this game,” Queiroz smiled.
“But unfortunately I don’t think that’s going to happen.”