It started with a man in a Donald Duck costume and “Miss Bumbum," a Brazilian supermodel who was waiting for him when Portugal arrived at their World Cup training base just outside Sao Paulo. This was Cristiano Ronaldo’s welcome to the 2014 World Cup and it only got worse from there.
Portugal crashed and burned against Germany, losing 4-0 and Pepe for the next game after the defender enjoyed one of his signature “what the hell are you doing” moments.
The Real Madrid star was barely a factor in that game and the telenovela-style updates regarding his injured knee continued: Ronaldo leaves practice early. Ronaldo’s doctor tells him his career will be in jeopardy if he continues to play in Brazil. Ronaldo tells his doctor that only Ronaldo makes decisions regarding his health and whether or not he will play.
Messi vs. Ronaldo became a thing again when the Barcelona star scored two wonderful goals, helping Argentina ease into the final 16. Champions League glory didn’t matter anymore. Neither did Ronaldo’s incredible performance against Sweden in Portugal’s World Cup play-off win.
Facing a must-win game against the United States in Manaus, there was no way Ronaldo would sit out, no matter how bad his knee was. He comes under considerable abuse for his well-groomed eyebrows, penchant for voicing his displeasure with referees and his elaborate celebrations. His haters abhor personality in sports. How dare Ronaldo enjoy himself. A similar line of faux outrage follows Mario Balotelli. “Somebody think of the children” screams the national columnist, petting their followers across the head with a hand full of excrement.
He was the best player in the world heading into this tournament. U.S. national team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann advised his players to put Ronaldo in his place.
“There’s a lot of admiration for him and for the players who play at big clubs and in the Champions League,” Klinsmann told the Daily Telegraph.
“But this is the moment to prove yourself, to step up, play those guys and put them in their place. We want to put Cristiano in his place.”
Portugal put the United States in its place early. Ronaldo deked and danced his way around three players in midfield. A whack of Americans watching World Cup soccer for the first time probably did not know the Portuguese dynamo was nursing an injury.
But he was, and for a team that is average at best, it showed. An early goal by Nani masked what was happening on the pitch. Fabian Johnson owned the right flank and the few moments Ronaldo was on the ball after his mesmerizing start to the game ended in disappointment.
Portugal was abject. Eder, playing in place of Helder Postiga, was abysmal. Nani, aside from his opening goal, was the Nani we had come to expect in big games. No Pepe. Rui Patricio on the bench. Portugal was not going to hold on for a 1-0 win.
The Americans tied it up thanks to Jermaine Jones’ curling strike. They took the lead when Clint Dempsey used his torso to guide the ball into an unguarded net.
Jackals surrounded the corpse of Portugal before the game was even over: “I hope we see Ronaldo’s tears,” his critics cried.
On the last play of the game the best player in the world, who was the only dangerous player in red on Sunday, sent in a perfect cross. It was the type of ball that moves in slow motion when watching at full speed.
Varela latched on to it, heading the ball past Tim Howard to spoil the American party in Manaus.
Ronaldo at something much less than 100 percent managed to propel his average team to a moment of greatness. Rather than pile on him for his supposed faults, embrace the opportunity to watch him.
A wonderful World Cup keeps getting better. Thanks for battling through, Cristiano. We’re lucky you did.
Feature photo courtesy of USA Today Sports/Mark J. Rebilas