Try hard enough and you can find reasons to be cheerful, no matter how daunting the task on the sporting field.
Take Cristiano Ronaldo and his role for Portugal in tonight’s World Cup tie at home to the Republic of Ireland.
In his two meetings with this country at international level, Ronaldo has yet to score or complete the 90 minutes, and on the first occasion he was seen in action in Ireland, for a 2005 friendly against Brian Kerr’s outfit, the only scorer was Andy O’Brien, Ronaldo subbed off after an hour in a 1-0 defeat. Christy Fagan scored on the Lansdowne Road turf, but Christy Ronaldo didn’t. Small crumbs of comfort, though. Tiny ones, in fact.
Portugal are not a one-man team – a glance through their squad could cause serious anxiety, Portugal with a squad so talented that they have one defender (Joao Cancelo) who has scored more international goals than five of Ireland’s six strikers (bar Shane Long) have managed.
At yesterday’s press conference in Lisbon, before their squad headed for Faro, only two questions in English were put before manager Fernando Santos. Both were about Ronaldo.
“Ronaldo is part of the team as always, he’s captain of the team, and for him it’s always an extra motivation to play for the national team,” he said, when asked what the new Manchester United man could contribute.
Santos quietly groaned when also asked how much a factor was Ronaldo’s quest to beat the all-time international scoring record, one he currently shares with Ali Daei (Iran).
“The Ireland game is the only thing in our minds. We can’t be thinking about player A or B right now. It would be bad if we were focused on those aspects,” he said.
If he thinks that Ronaldo is not pondering that landmark tally, scoring more international goals than any other footballer in history, or he expects us to believe that it’s not on Ronaldo’s mind, Santos is a fool or trying to fool us. Ronaldo is a rare case of ego matching output, and he will want the garlands that will come from being, officially, ‘The Greatest’.
Portugal don’t try too hard to push the “we’re not a one-man team” idea. The Portuguese FA’s twitter account posted a video from training yesterday, where the captain performed an audacious lob into the net, albeit an empty one.
There’s no shying away from the No 7’s greatness, a global figure who is a Portuguese success story, a name and face recognisable everywhere.
The character of Tony Ferrino was a Portuguese lounge lizard singer, alter ego of Steve Coogan (his hits included ‘Other Men’s Wives’ and ‘Lap Dancing Lady’). When asked why his fan club had 20 million members but the population of Portugal was only 10 million, Ferrino/Coogan joked that life in Portugal was so boring that people joined twice, just for something to do.
As Ronaldo ascended to greatness year on year, with club and country, Portugal was no laughing matter.
Omit Ronaldo from the team and Portugal have more than enough to put Ireland to the sword, although the loss, to injury, of Sporting Lisbon’s Pedro Gonçalves reduces their options marginally.
But Ronaldo will play, and seek to score. Irish teams have always been built around the unit, not the individual. It’s a standard of pre-match press conferences where opposing players are asked to name an Irish player they fear and, with a blank look on their face, they’ll mutter something about “many strong players from the English leagues”.
Since the two Keanes and Damien Duff exited the stage, not one Ireland player has had the potential to strike fear. We obsess about big names in the other dressing-room though, and with good reason.
When faced with a team containing one talisman, Ireland tend to struggle: think Ibrahimovic in the 2014 World Cup qualifiers, Eriksen in his demolition of Ireland’s 2018 World Cup hopes.
Speaking to this newspaper last month, Glenn Whelan said he was given one simple task before Ireland faced Croatia at Euro 2012. “My role in that game was to stop Modric, that’s all I was told to do,” he recalled.
Stopping Modric was hard then, halting Ronaldo’s gallop is almost impossible. His first goal against Ireland, in three attempts, would shatter a record and leave Ireland broken. That’s what he does.