Ronaldo Recovers His Swagger

Cristiano Ronaldo is supposed to have it easy. He dates beautiful women, collects an exorbitant salary and plays professional football for Real Madrid. No one complains anymore about his arrogance or his theatrics. After another immense season, he’s earned the right to say and do what he wants. Yet Ronaldo somehow seems unfulfilled. A lurking suspicion remains that the Portuguese international just isn’t as good as he seems to be. On Thursday, those doubts grew when Ronaldo missed a series of gilt-edged chances in Portgual’s 3-2 victory over Denmark. In the white of Madrid, critics said, he would have scored at least twice.

Maybe all this has something to do with Ronaldo’s rival and footballing antithesis, Lionel Messi. If not for Messi, Ronaldo would, indisputably, be accounted the world’s most accomplished footballer. Instead, he’s an awfully talented narcissist defined by the one player who is better than he is. Indeed, for a player of his stature, Ronaldo has won relatively little – especially compared to his sparkling contemporaries. Messi and Barcelona’s other insufferable perfectionists have twice denied Ronaldo the Champions League — once when Ronaldo played for Manchester United and once when he played for Real Madrid. Xavi and Iniesta, neither a member of the pantheon to which Messi and Ronaldo belong, have each won more silverware than the Portuguese has.

Ronaldo, though, has been ludicrously unlucky. He emerged as a worldwide star in the 2006/2007 season, about two years too late. At 19, he was part of the Portuguese squad that lost to Greece on home soil in the final of the 2004 European Championships. That tournament marked the end of a golden era for Portuguese football – Luis Figo, Rui Costa and Pauleta never touched the same heights again.

In 2008, with Ronaldo universally accepted as Europe’s finest footballer, Spain won the European Championships. That victory launched an ideological revolution of tectonic proportions – not only did Luis Aragones’ team change the course of modern football, but they also consigned Cristiano Ronaldo to second best.

Ronaldo was deposed by a major football plate shift. Ronaldo moved to Real Madrid at the beginning of Barcelona’s four-year hegemony, a run that kept the Bernabeau trophy-less for two years. Internationally, too, he has suffered. As Portuguese stars retired, Spanish ones reached their prime. Ronaldo joined Real Madrid at exactly the wrong time; his arrival in Spain allowed the press to compare him directly to a blossoming Lionel Messi. That rivalry has only hurt Ronaldo.

“This time last year, Messi was eliminated from the Copa America, which they were playing at home,” Ronaldo said after the Denmark match. “That’s worse, right? I’m here fighting to move on to the next round of the Euros.” It is clear that Messi annoys Ronaldo, and not just because of Ronnie’s typically egotistical desire to stand alone as the world’s best player. Comparisons between the two have added to the pressure that Ronaldo faces every time he plays for Portugal.

His status in his home country eclipses even that of former Barcelona and Real Madrid midfielder Luis Figo. Ronaldo is a national icon, Portugal’s great football hope. However, his international career has yet to take off. Ronaldo’s miss against Denmark was typical of his struggles at the last three international tournaments. At the 2008 European Championships, Ronaldo, coming off a marvelous season with Manchester United, scored only once – against the Czech Republic in a 3-1 win. He matched that total at the 2006 World Cup, adding a sixth goal in Portugal’s rout of North Korea. In both tournaments, Portugal failed to progress beyond the first knockout round.

 Obviously, Portugal’s struggles aren’t all Ronaldo’s fault. Since Pauleta’s retirement, the Portuguese have lacked a proven international goal scorer – neither Hugo Almeida nor Helder Postiga has produced a convincing tournament. Nani’s marvelous wing play is often wasted by profligate forwards, which is why Nelson Oliveira’s impact appearance against Germany was so encouraging. However, the Benfica youngster has failed to build on that enticing cameo.

Increasingly, Ronaldo has to do it all by himself. And, against Holland, he did, producing arguably his most impressive international performance to date. Facing a weak Dutch defense, Ronaldo scored twice before hitting the post late. That win catapulted Portugal into the quarter-finals, where they will take on the Czech Republic, Group A’s surprise winners.

This Portugal team is built on a firm defensive backbone, a core of players that includes Real Madrid central defender Pepe and bruising, former-Porto stalwart Bruno Alves. In the left full-back position, Ronaldo’s club colleague Fabio Coentrao continues to terrorize opposing teams with his incisive attacking runs. Even right-back Joao Pereira has begun to have a telling impact – it was he who set-up Ronaldo for Portugal’s opener against Holland.

In the dugout, Paulo Bento has brought discipline to an inconsistent Portuguese team. He was Ronaldo’s teammate at Sporting Lisbon, and the two enjoy a healthy rapport. However, whether Bento is experienced enough to guide Portugal to the final remains to be seen.

Needless to say, a lot will depend on Cristiano Ronaldo.

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