Sunday 23 September 2018

James Lawton: Ronaldo's ferocious desire to be greatest proves hard act for his rivals to follow

Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates during the match against Morocco at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. Photo: Reuters
Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates during the match against Morocco at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. Photo: Reuters
James Lawton

James Lawton

Cristiano Ronaldo long ago removed himself from the laws of football probability, and, yes, it is a good 10 years since his most damning critic had to yield the point that he was so much more than a self-possessed, if superior, show pony.

Yet none of this could have prepared us for the almost eerie psychological power with which he has invaded the Russian World Cup these last few days.

He may, like today's version of Don Quixote, be charging at the tournament as if it is no more formidable than a windmill. He may be creating a fantasy strictly in his own mind.

But then who could not be fascinated, or moved in a strangely compulsive way, by the intensity of his will and, when it has mattered most so far, the certainty of his execution.

His hat-trick against Spain, crowned by a killer free-kick which showed the nerve of the most practised gunfighter and will linger forever in the mind of all who saw it as an example of supreme competitive concentration, suggested that if you want something badly enough, who knows, you might just achieve it.

Of course, he was odds-on to score in his eighth successive major international tournament. It is, after all, his habit of mind and performance, an insatiable self-belief so strong that sometimes he seems to put a hex on even his most resolute opponents.

pleasing Morocco, a team of pleasing movement but one nursing defeat by Iran, hardly occupied that terrain but after four minutes they too were over-run by a Ronaldo exuding something which resembled the passion of his life.

At 33, he was bound to strive for impact on what might well prove to be his last great international stage.

He was sure to be hell-bent on carrying his shield beyond that of his great rival Lionel Messi, who this week against Croatia was required to prove that his bewilderingly lame performance in Argentina's shocking draw with Iceland had less to do with Nordic defiance than Ronaldo's invasion of his mind with that superb, almost other-worldly presence against a still formidable Spain.

Messi couldn't do it. Lost in an Argentina team betraying all its best values, and at times teetering close to anarchy, he was, tragically, staggeringly just another player in the shadow of his fierce rival.

Even so, all laws except Ronaldo's say that he is aiming for one star too many if he believes if he can lead an otherwise extremely moderate Portugal to their first World Cup triumph two years after he cheer-led them to the European title in Paris after suffering an injury in the final.

Eusebio, the Lion of Africa and one Portuguese player who doesn't automatically shrivel when compared with his luminous successor, couldn't do it in England in 1966 despite a superb supporting cast which included a great midfielder, Mario Coluna and a fine one, Jaime Graca, two dazzling wingers, Antonio Simoes and Jose Augusto, and a beanpole striker Jose Torres capable from time to time of outjumping big Jack Charlton.

The reality is that Ronaldo is indeed reaching for some improbable stars if he believes that a World Cup is within the arc of his powers. But there is another one and it may, win or lose, be the glory of this slow-burning (except for Ronaldo and the old warhorse Diego Costa of Spain, the inspirational Luca Modric of Croatia and Russia's pounding Red Army) but not entirely unpromising World Cup.

It is the sight of someone who has established himself in the top echelon of all-time players fighting with every fibre the passing of the years and, soon enough, the ebbing of the football light.

Do we over-state? Only if we have become inured to the sight of talented, and hugely rewarded, players taking the slow ride home to some pantheon of football heroes.

Ronaldo, with four goals in two games and the mark of Europe's highest scorer in international football, may be painting vivid pictures of his own last dream but whatever the consequences it is surely an effort that makes Portuguese coach Fernando Santos the envy of many of his rivals.

What, for example, would the tactically brilliant Joachim Low have given for some of Ronaldo's relish for battle as his reigning world champions slid to a sickening defeat against Mexico?

Would he not, for one notably languid example, have liked to see a little of that rage to win in the talented Mesut Ozil? Instead he looked at the face of a player whose expression spoke more of peevish exasperation than anything approaching perceptible anguish.

Argentina's frantic Jorge Sampaoli pleaded to the heavens for some old stirrings of animated genius from Messi as Iceland plugged away for their draw and England's Gareth Southgate had to sweat it out into additional time before the defensively inadequate Tunisia were put down.

Perhaps the sharpest contrast of all to Ronaldo's purpose was in the meanderings of the world's most expensive player, Neymar, as Brazil, the newly refurbished potential world champions, subsided to a limp draw with Switzerland in their opening match. Brazilian coach Tite had spoken of Neymar's restored fitness and the sublime dimension he would provide.

Sublime Neymar? For the moment it is the terrain occupied by Cristiano Ronaldo. We do not know how long he will lay claim to it, or whether it will even survive ambush by Iran on Monday night (they certainly gave Spain much to think about) but for the moment there is no hardship recognising the player who thus far has announced the most significant presence.

perception Ronaldo will never be everyone's favourite glass of Madeira and the odds against him becoming the 'Moscow' Pele or Maradona - players whose talent and perception seemed to swell a little more with every World Cup game - remain huge.

But there is, amid the layers of ego, something new to be said of Cristiano Ronaldo.

Ten years ago, after winning his first Champions League title in Moscow, as it happened, he declared that he would live his own life according his own judgements. No, he would not say whether he was moving on from Manchester United to Real Madrid, that was his own business and he would not confide it to his mother.

A decade on, no-one can accuse him of being coy about his reason for being in Russia. Every glower of determination, which for some may have been a reminder of the demeanour of Muhammad Ali when he entered a world title ring, has been re-enforced by the most skilled and dynamic action.

It's almost as though he too wants to be the greatest. In this or any World Cup it is surely the least ignoble of ambitions.

Irish Independent

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