ACCORDING to Wayne Rooney, his former Manchester United colleague, Cristiano Ronaldo is not a team player.
He is an individual who needs a legacy. He is a model professional alright, a rare talent with the highest of standards, but when it comes to motivation, he wants his “moments”, which just happens to be the title of his 2007 autobiography.
Try telling that to Portugal, who would not be half the team without him. Try telling Nani and Hugo Almeida and their manager, Paulo Bento, that the preening, narcissistic Real Madrid striker is oblivious to the collective. If Ronaldo is not fit enough to give everything against USA tonight, or worse still to play at all, he and his country will suffer the consequences.
Portugal’s longstanding dependence on Ronaldo has never been so clear. If they are not to become the second Iberian nation to make a premature exit from the competition, they badly need him to repair the damage of a 4-0 battering by Germany in their opening game. His injured left knee is not nearly so painful as being bottom of Group G, behind Ghana on goal difference.
Quite a debate has raged about the seriousness or otherwise of the complaint that threatens his involvement tonight. After he was seen leaving training with his knee in an ice pack, a doctor was reported to have advised him that further participation in the finals would jeopardise his career, although that remark has since been denied.
By most accounts, Ronaldo will play this evening, possibly with the aid of painkillers. He will pull out all the stops to be available, whether he is fit or unfit. Whether it is for his benefit or for his country’s, now is the time for another of those “moments”, like the hat-trick that single-handedly carried Portugal through the play-off against Sweden. Or the eight goals in qualifying that took them that far in the first place.
There is a theory about Ronaldo, just as there is for most players who command global acclaim. The gist of it is that, until the 29-year-old striker wins the World Cup, he will not leave the legacy he craves. Even he once said that he would only be fully content if he lifted a trophy with Portugal. A number of others have contended that, if the best player in the world is to be mentioned in the same breath as Pele or Diego Maradona, he needs success in the planet’s biggest tournament.
“If you want to be remembered like that in the World Cups, of course, you have to win,” says Luis Figo, the Portuguese who played for Real Madrid and Barcelona. “To be remembered as one of the greatest, I think it’s important to do well in the World Cup. If you do that in a small country like Portugal, it helps. Right now, I think he needs to have that distinction in terms of what people think about his qualities.”
All of which seems a little harsh. After all, Figo did not win one. Nor did Eusebio. Nor, for that matter, did Johan Cruyff or George Best. And Lionel Messi has yet to do so, although this could be his – and Argentina’s – year.
Maradona and Pele had the advantage of playing for heavyweight football nations. You wonder if even they would have done for Portugal what Ronaldo has. At the end of his first season with Manchester United, he played in the Euro 2004 final against Greece. He helped Portugal to the last four of the 2006 World Cup after a quarter-final penalty shoot-out win against England. They also reached the Euro 2012 semis and he is Portugal’s all-time top goalscorer with 49 goals from 112 appearances.
If he does not do it this year, it will be because there are extenuating circumstances. One is that Portugal no longer have the golden generation to support him. The other is that a long, hard season with Real Madrid, one in which he finally eclipsed Messi, has taken its toll.
He is not the only Real Madrid player to have struggled in Brazil. Less than a month after the Champions League final in which they conquered their continent for a historic tenth time, some of their most influential figures – from Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos and Xabi Alonso to Ronaldo, Pepe and Fabio Coentrao – have been frustrated in the World Cup finals.
That, of course, is thanks partly to Spain’s shock exit from the tournament. It was in Spain’s central defence that Ramos was found wanting. It was in Spain’s midfield that Alonso, amongst others, was painfully exposed. Casillas, goalkeeper of the team who won three consecutive international tournaments, summed up the end of an era with his catastrophic errors against Chile and the Netherlands.
But the Madrid contingent in Portugal’s national side have also come up short. Quite apart from Ronaldo’s fitness problems, Coentrao is out of the tournament with a thigh injury and Pepe is suspended for the USA match thanks to the headbutt that led to his red card against Germany.
Not all of Real’s World Cup players have been affected by the malaise. Karim Benzema and Raphael Varane have shone for France, while Luka Modric, Sami Khedira and Angel Di Maria all have the potential to do likewise for Croatia, Germany and Argentina.
But it has been an exhausting challenge – mentally and physically – for the galacticos, whose fight for the Spanish title was lost on the final day. Also taking part in that three-way battle were Barcelona and Atletico Madrid, whose combined effort may have compounded Spain’s problems this summer.
As Ronaldo battles manfully to extend his season by at least another week, his opponents in Manaus this evening will be relatively fresh. Most of Jürgen Klinsmann’s US squad play in the MLS, which only started its season in March. Brazil’s top flight got underway in April.
Even before the end of his domestic season, Ronaldo was showing signs of wear and tear. He and Madrid’s medical staff “managed” the injury, which caused him varying degrees of pain. A week before the World Cup finals, the Portuguese FA confirmed that he had a thigh problem, as well as left patellar tendinitis, more commonly-known as “jumper’s knee”. It is perhaps no surprise that he was subdued in the rout by Germany, unable to spear at their defence with his usual speed and power. He had been the same in the Champions League final, despite the penalty goal that prompted his overblown celebration.
Ronaldo has repeatedly denied that there is cause for concern, but the best athletes do that. For psychological reasons, they prefer not to admit that they are vulnerable. They would rather not encourage their opponents.
Reports suggest that Ronaldo is dealing with tendinosis, rather than tendinitis, and that his condition is the product of overuse rather than one traumatic incident. The fear is that it could be degenerative, a chronic weakness that will make it increasingly difficult for him to produce the explosive bursts that are such a feature of his game.
If he makes it to the 2018 World Cup finals, he is unlikely to be the player he is now. If he wants a few more “moments” for the scrapbook, he needs to get on with it. Doctors say that, in his current condition, the one treatment he needs – above all else – is rest, but it is a luxury that neither he nor Portugal can afford right now.