When the final whistle blew, with Morocco upending Portugal to reach the semifinals of the Qatar World Cup, Cristiano Ronaldo trudged to the tunnel, his head bowed down and face hidden in the jersey. He passed through hysterical Moroccan players, each paused their celebration to commiserate the legend and applauded him, as though it were his international farewell. At 37 then, perhaps, there is no time for another tilt at the trophy he has coveted the most in his life, the only piece of silverware missing in his gallery stacked with trophies.
When he reached the belly of the dark tunnel, he broke down, wiping bursts of tears exploding from his eyes. Then coach Fernando Santos would later say:
“If we take two people that were the most upset about the game, perhaps it was Cristiano Ronaldo and myself.” A teary-eyed Ronaldo was supposed to be the cruel farewell image of a footballer who loathed to be pictured weeping in public. The path to sunset seemed to begin, as he soon left Manchester United, the ego that fuels his footballing feats battered, and retreated into the slow buzz of a football wasteland, far from the gruel of heart-stopping football chores of Europe, far from the stifling clutches of systems and styles, to a place where he could finally be his own, the free spirit.
But Ronaldo is made of such fiery stuff that he would not fade away quietly, he would not easily quit his dreams. He, like all champions, would be as seduced as inspired by the quest to fulfill the unfulfilled dream. It’s their drug, their spark, their purpose of life. So soon returned Ronaldo for Portugal, refueled and refreshed, not publicly talking about his goals, but inwardly impelled by the dream of winning trophies for his country. The long and colourful reign of Santos ended, his last days discoloured by the decision to bench Ronaldo in the knockout stages of the World Cup. The former Belgium gaffer Roberto Martinez, who failed to spark Belgium’s golden generation to a meaningful title, was appointed as his successor.
It was good news for Ronaldo, as Martinez is not quite the definition of an ultramodern tactician. Unlike most modern managers, he does not fret over pressing. He would look to build from the back, hoard possession and move the ball patiently upfield, often through the wings. So immediately, he tuned up Portugal in his preferred 3-4-2-1 formation and its more attacking variant 3-4-3, (in 75 of his 79 games with Portugal, he played a back three) with Ronaldo as the focal point in both. The formation should suit Ronaldo on two counts. A) He would get a lot of service from the creative midfield and he needn’t play-make much. B) He is not expected to defend, or press. He could roam like a conventional poacher, break the line and shuttle in and out of space.
Ronaldo has relished this newfound freedom, the unburdening of pressing duties modern-day forwards are expected to perform. So in the last five games, he has knocked off five goals, though two of them free-kicks. But he was still sharp and strong, outmuscling the defenders and imposing both his stature and power on them. The winner in the Euro qualifiers against Iceland, his 200th appearance for his country, was a classic Ronaldo strike, in the 89th minute. Breaking from goalmouth melee, he latched onto a cushioned header from Inacio Goncalo and bunted the goal home, totally unmarked.
Aside from the goal, he was his usual self, appealing for handballs and fouls, twinkling and drifting past the defenders, always foreseeing his teammates designs, always at the end of the passes, always finding for himself inside the box. He is not as quick as he once was, not as energetic either, but he is as intuitive and crafty as he always had been. The coach is super impressed. “When you’re out, you don’t know the secret. Playing until he was 38, playing the games he played… When you’re with him, you understand why. His commitment, his total dedication, that incredible desire to be the best and improve everyone. It’s something we see in very young players. It’s something I learned from him: you can always be young with experience.”
That he missed only 35 minutes in four games under Martinez shows his centrality to the team. The two times he was substituted before the 75th minutes, Portugal were already leading by three or more goals. At the start of the qualifying campaign, Martinez was asked how he would utilise Ronaldo. He said eloquently: “Like how all the managers before me had used him, as the main man, as the team’s icon. You know exactly what you get from him.”
The biggest challenge for Ronaldo would be to keep himself in European-standard match shape. Then Ronaldo is not someone who ignores fitness drills. Al Nassr’s nutritionist Jose Bielsa was shocked to see the improvement of the players since the arrival of Ronaldo. “Since he arrived here, all the players have been training harder and following a stricter diet. I have not seen a club like this in which the players improve practically 90% in their body composition every time I see them. They have less fat, more muscle and they do all the exercises at their fingertips,” Jose Blesa was quoted as saying. Against Ireland, he was as fit and agile as he had been when playing in Europe. Martinez reckons that his Saudi stint would only benefit his international career in that he remains fresh, unlike in Europe where the league would drain players on international duty.
Now that he is central to Martinez’s schemes, the bigger question is how long he could carry on. He would be 40 when the Euro kicks off, he would be 42 by the time the World Cup in 2026. Ronaldo has made a career out of busting stereotypes and predictions. He could bust the age stereotype too, driven by the endless quest for El Dorado in North America.