In his prime, Cristiano Ronaldo would have side-stepped the Ghanaian defenders, run past them on the flanks, harassed them with his physicality and intimidated them with his aura. He would have had them for lunch and told them he was hungry for dinner too.
But for most of the match against Ghana, the 37-year-old looked like a guy who had spent a lot of time on the bench recently. He looked rusty, the touch wasn’t great, lost possession easily, wasn’t working as hard as some of his other team-mates, wasn’t pressing and mostly he (and his fans too) seemed to be waiting… for something; for a sign; for something to give.
The second coming at Manchester United had been anything but kind to him. He went there thinking he would rule but Man United manager Erik ten Hag kept Ronaldo out of the playing XI on most days. Ronaldo missed pre-season, the lack of physical fitness (!) and a refusal to press were the reasons that emerged through the grapevine.
Watch: Cristiano Ronaldo shuts reporter’s Manchester United query with blunt reply in two-minute long press conference
And then the interview dropped just before the start of the World Cup. Ronaldo, in a chat with Piers Morgan let loose. The Portugal captain said he felt “betrayed” during a 90-minute discussion in which he was also critical of younger players.
That was all the invitation United needed to, for lack of a better word, kick him out and they did that after a few days. But at the same time, it was moment that would have added fuel to Ronaldo’s already raging inner fire. One of the biggest players in the world is on the biggest stage in the world, without a club and a chance to show just how good he can be; how good he STILL is.
The operative word here is ‘still’. The records he has established over a celebrated career need no telling for a football fan. But if you have come into this late, then here goes: he holds the records for most appearances (183), goals (140), and assists (42) in the Champions League, goals in the European Championship (14), international goals (119), and international appearances by a European (192). He’s won titles, 38 of them — at the club and national level too. He has also been named the best player in the world by FIFA five times.
FIFA World Cup 2022: Ghana coach slams referee after Cristiano Ronaldo’s record WC goal
But there is no denying that Ronaldo we now see slows a team down; you have to accommodate him and that means the team needs to be set-up to play with him as the prime focus. So, the question going into the World Cup wasn’t so much about him playing… rather it was about whether he would make them better; raise their level as he once would. Portugal have a lot of talent in their squad and some might even look at them as being more than just dark horses to go all the way. Would a younger, more mobile striker make them even more dangerous?
There is no denying that this is a debate worth having but, at the same time, it is worth noting that few footballers around the world are as driven as Ronaldo. A younger player might want to impress but Ronaldo… he will want to own the moment as few others can. He’ll want to shine. He’ll want to show Man United that they got it wrong. He’ll want to win it all. It is this fanatical drive that led to his transformation from a trickster to a lethal finisher. And it is this ego that makes you want him in your squad in big moments. Give him the stage and know that he’ll, even now, desperately find a way a win.
He did that against Ghana too. He showed he was still the tip of the Portugal’s spear. There were chances in the first half and then the contested ‘soft’ penalty in the second which Ronaldo earned, converted and celebrated in trademark style. He may still not be at his best but every minute he spends on the pitch; every goal he scores will make him better.
His team will know that if he can get into his stride, the upside will be enormous. Peak Ronaldo, after all, is not a force to be messed with.