Cristiano Ronaldo grabbing World Cup limelight at 33 while other superstars go missing
With an elbow on the desk and one hand propping up his chin, the Portugal manager Fernando Santos takes question after question about Cristiano Ronaldo with the resignation of a pub landlord waiting for the last boisterous clientele to drink up and clear off.
Why, he must wonder, does no one ever ask how he masterminded a European championship-winning team built from one single superstar and 10 others you might struggle to name.
Twenty minutes in at the Luzhniki Stadium yesterday evening, ahead of Portugal’s second group game against Morocco, Santos was asked whether Ronaldo could break the 1958 record of 13 goals at a single tournament by Just Fontaine, the Morocco-born France international. The Portugal coach had run out of politeness.
“Maybe. I don’t know. This is a World Cup, and these are all national teams. The important thing is to respect Morocco and all our opponents,” he said.
The issue for those who would like a break from Ronaldo, even a 63-year-old coach whose team won a Euro 2016 final against France in Paris without their No 7 for 85 of the 120 minutes, is that the relentless CR7 is already leading the big names at Russia 2018. Lionel Messi? Missed a penalty.
Neymar? Limping after a 1-1 draw with Switzerland. Eden Hazard? Failed to fill his boots against Panama. Thomas Muller? Anonymous against Mexico. Fontaine? Now 84 and unlikely to add to his international tally.
Over the years, the cult of Ronaldo, the obsessive hunting of the Ballon D’Or, the dizzying number of goals, the unashamedly distraught reaction to not being passed the ball at every occasion, the constant shooting has also become an unending conflict.
Every goal and its accompanying celebration now has to be a point proven against someone or something, whether those targets are interpreted as commercials featuring Messi and farmyard animals, or veiled messages to the Spanish tax authorities.
When Patrice Evra tells the story of being invited to lunch at Ronaldo’s home during their time at Manchester United and being served a joyless plate of plain chicken and salad before his host insisted on a game of two-touch football, that too feeds into the legend of the perfectionist.
The man who would forego a little sauce to bestride the football world and all its rewards, including lucrative endorsements with Egyptian steel companies and that Japanese invention that helps you develop a six-pack.
The argument can get a little wearying at times, as if to concede any weakness or self-doubt would be to admit to a defeat in itself.
You have to wonder how he will cope with the decline, whenever it does come – by current standards some time around his mid-forties.
When Ronaldo came into the press room at the Fisht Stadium in Sochi last week, notably content and at peace after that dramatic hat-trick against Spain, it did occur whether this tournament might indeed be the peak in a colossal career of achievement. Zinedine Zidane turned 34 during the 2006 World Cup finals, when he was still arguably the tournament’s best player, and Ronaldo does not reach 34 until next February.
His performance against Spain was the textbook late-era Ronaldo, picking out the moments he could prevail and the individuals in the Spain team whose vulnerabilities he could exploit.
An equally remarkable testament to all those years of dedication to plain chicken was one first-half sprint again from Portugal’s area to Spain’s to support a counter-attack.
Fifa clocked his top speed at 33.98 km/h, and the footage of him rocketing past younger team-mates will resonate most among the World Cup’s competing players, who will have noted that example of his physicality.
It contributes to the general sense of awe around him from most of his peers, the glances his way in the tunnel, the surreptitious shirt exchange requests – all of which play into the influence he has on the game and the tournament. Santos did drop into the conversation that it was he who first decided that Ronaldo might be best moved back into a central position in his 30s, rather than anyone at Real Madrid.
His captain might fill his boots again this afternoon against Morocco from that central positions. The manager knows better than to be expecting credit if he does. (© Daily Telegraph, London)