World Cup·Analysis

Portugal's Ronaldo remains defiant despite the evidence of his decline

At 37, Ronaldo's influence on the soccer pitch will only continue to diminish, and then the question becomes: Does he fight that process or learn to embrace it?

Scores in win over Ghana just days after stormy departure from club team Man U

Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal celebrates after scoring his team's first goal via a penalty against Ghana on Thursday. (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Chris Jones is in Qatar covering the men's World Cup for CBC Sports.

It felt fitting that Cristiano Ronaldo and the rest of Portugal began their World Cup campaign — likely Ronaldo's last attempt at the only honour that's escaped him — against Ghana in Stadium 974, the one made from stacks of shipping containers.

Even monuments aren't built to last anymore.

At 37, Ronaldo has done a better job fighting clocks and calendars than most of us. His physique remains almost alarmingly chiselled. He has the abdominals of a comic-book hero.

He also has the sneer of a comic-book villain, and we have seen it more lately than his smile.

Two days ago, Ronaldo was released by Manchester United, an ignominious exit that came "by mutual agreement, with immediate effect," according to a terse club statement. He had never seemed settled during his second stint with the English giants, as though he was too aware that his time is running out, and too impatient to make the most of what he has left.

With this season's arrival of manager Erik ten Hag, Ronaldo lost his place in United's starting lineup. He couldn't accept a supporting role. On Nov. 14, he gave a bombshell interview to Piers Morgan, in which he said he felt "betrayed" by the club and disrespected by ten Hag.

Watching the Morgan conversation was like watching a man burn a bridge while he was still standing on it. More than half his lifetime ago, his teenage rise at United had felt inevitable. Now, in the long-tooth years of his brilliant career, so does his demise. 

Against Ghana, he didn't sprint as much as he stalked, reduced for most of the match to the purest kind of poacher. In the 10th minute, he was gifted a clear run at goal but couldn't get a handle on the ball. Three minutes later, he absolutely levitated to reach a cross but headed it wide.

His one moment of old magic followed an act of charity from the referee. After an extremely dubious penalty call midway through the second half of what had been a turgid game, Ronaldo stepped up to take the spot kick.

To his credit, he hammered it home, giving Portugal the lead, and Ronaldo goals in a record five men's World Cups. But it all felt a little gift-wrapped, like an attempt to soothe a spoiled king.

Ronaldo had been scornful of everyone around him to that point, making near-constant demands for service or fouls and screaming whenever they were not met. When Ghana's Andre Ayew soon equalized — with a deserved goal, during open play — it felt like justice.

Ronaldo scores from the penalty spot. (Manu Fernandez/Associated Press)

Only later markers by João Felix and Rafael Leão, the latter of which Ronaldo helped engineer with an opening pass, gave Portugal the nervy, eventual 3-2 win.

Ronaldo's goal will get all the attention, including his. But going forward in Qatar, and at whatever professional club awaits him, he might do well to remember his pass more than his penalty.

That short, simple ball brought back memories of Andrea Pirlo's performance at the last World Cup of his storied career, in Brazil in 2014.

One steamy night in Manaus, Italy played England, and the 35-year-old Pirlo looked soaked-through and spent the instant he walked on the field, like the last survivor of a doomed jungle expedition.

He lifted himself up and went on to play a gorgeous game — if an old man's version of one, with economy and patience and restraint.

In a single play, he defined what it means to age gracefully on the field. After an Italian corner, he charged forward, drawing an English defender toward him, before letting the ball pass between his legs to Claudio Marchisio, his younger teammate, sprung free to drive it into the net.

Watching the legendary Pirlo choose to contribute by not playing the ball — by letting it run through him instead — felt like the most noble kind of concession.

Now, Pirlo never quite reached Ronaldo's heights, so he didn't have as far to fall. He was also a midfielder rather than a striker, used to playing deep. It was easier for him, constitutionally, to assume a mantle of service rather than one of bravado. 

Ronaldo is brought down by Ghana's Mohammed Salisu. (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Ronaldo became one of the greatest because he is selfish, and ruthless, and pathological in his pursuits and self-regard.

"I'm completely bulletproof and iron-clad," he said earlier this week. "In my life, the best timing is always my timing."

But his influence on the pitch will only continue to diminish, and then the question becomes: Does he fight that process or learn to embrace it?

It's a choice that all of us will have to make one day. Athletes face it sooner than most. It's an extremely personal dilemma, and Ronaldo will answer it his way, because he always has. His response will almost certainly include rage. He knows no other motivation.

Still, it's nice to imagine that he will come to understand that life's final fight isn't outside of ourselves, but within us. And if it's peace we want more than anything else — for ourselves, and for those around us — then there's no shame in accepting a beautiful surrender.

Watch Soccer North live immediately following each of Canada's games on CBC and the CBC Sports YouTube channel


Chris Jones

Senior Contributor

Chris Jones is a journalist and screenwriter who began his career covering baseball and boxing for the National Post. He later joined Esquire magazine, where he won two National Magazine Awards for his feature writing. His work has also appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, ESPN The Magazine (RIP), and WIRED, and he is the author of the book, The Eye Test: A Case for Human Creativity in the Age of Analytics. Follow him on Twitter at @EnswellJones

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