FIFA World Cup 2018, Iran vs Portugal: Mentor Carlos Querioz plots against ex-prodigy Cristiano Ronaldo
It was early May 2009 and the relationship between Alex Ferguson and Cristiano Ronaldo at Manchester United seemed to have reached tipping point. After being subbed by the then United manager during the Manchester derby, Ronaldo was seen snatching his tracksuit from the club’s assistant kitman Alec Wyllie and throwing it to the ground. A line was crossed, and it wasn’t only the touchline.
A month later, Ronaldo completed his ‘dream move’ to Real Madrid for a transfer fee of £80 million and Carlos Queiroz, who had just left United after serving for four years as Ferguson’s No. 2, reportedly facilitated the move.
A season previously, Ronaldo had won his first Champions League winner’s medal, as United beat Chelsea 6-5 on penalties at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. The following months saw Real Madrid up the ante to bring the star winger to Bernabeu. But Queiroz, Ferguson’s No. 2 then, stood like a rock, defying then Real Madrid president Ramon Calderon and constantly persuading Ronaldo to become a one-club legend. Things change fast in football but all through the protracted transfer saga, Queiroz’s influence over Ronaldo had been evident.
Ronaldo came to United in 2003 as an 18-year-old and almost immediately found an ‘adversary’ in Ruud van Nistelrooy. Earlier this year, while making his debut on Sky Sports’ Monday Night Football, Wayne Rooney shed light on the relationship between the two forwards. “I think Ruud was used to David Beckham getting the ball down, Giggs getting the ball down, putting crosses into the box and getting on the end of them. And then Cristiano came in and started chopping back, chopping back and he (van Nistelrooy) got frustrated with it,” Rooney said.
Van Nistelrooy was United’s No. 1 front man then. But Ronaldo had Queiroz’s support on the training pitch. Queiroz advised Ferguson to sign the youngster and mother-henned him at a time when by Rooney’s description, Ronaldo “wasn’t at a level that he is now”. And one day, when the two players fell out in training, van Nistelrooy mocked Queiroz over his “friendship” with Ronaldo. Ferguson had to choose between the two and the boss’s faith in his assistant was a reason why Ronaldo stayed. Van Nistelrooy left Old Trafford after scoring 150 goals in 219 appearances. Queiroz’s mentorship proved to be the turning point in Ronaldo’s career.
Ronaldo played under Queiroz again at the 2010 World Cup and it didn’t end on good terms after the player slammed the coach, with Portugal making a second-round exit after losing to Spain. The two now talk about mutual respect, but some old scars might resurface when Portugal face Iran at Saransk on Monday. The Portugal captain is in blazing form, with four goals from two matches. His team is on four points and a draw would secure a knockout berth. Iran, on three, need victory, which makes the taming of Ronaldo imperative.
A huge part of Queiroz’s strategy will revolve around successfully marking a player, who in his current form becomes almost impossible to stop at times. Apart from open play, Ronaldo will take care of set-pieces as well. But who better than the Iran coach to plot a move to stop the master. How do you stop Ronaldo, Queiroz was asked ahead of the match. “Well, I could suggest to the Portugal coach, Fernando Santos, he should rest Ronaldo for this game,” he said tongue in cheek. His boys came close to stopping Lionel Messi at Belo Horizonte four years ago. But they were eventually done in by the little genius’ last-gasp brilliance. Now, it’s Queiroz versus Ronaldo, which offers a fascinating subplot to the main story.
Queiroz has had a difficult relationship with the Iranian FA since taking over as the head coach in 2011. He has been there for seven years now, through several resignations and subsequent changes of heart. The coach is almost relentless in complaining about the lack of support from the football authorities. Under his stewardship, Iran became the first Asian team to qualify for the 2018 World Cup finals.
Just about six months back, the 65-year-old had posted a video, saying: “I don’t care about the threats and what they have been trying to do to stop me talking. The Iranian fans deserve a special World Cup preparation. We need to implement a special preparation to bring honour and pride.”
Queiroz’s boys won their Group B opener against Morocco despite the fact that Nike decided not to supply the boots to the players because of the United States’ economic sanctions against Iran. Getting the better of Ronaldo’s Portugal will require a bigger resolve.
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