It took precisely three minutes and 30 seconds for Cristiano Ronaldo’s penalty to hit the back of the net against Spain, and just three minutes and 58 seconds for his header to do the same against Morocco five days later. If he is slowing down with age it isn’t at all obvious.
Ronaldo’s goalscoring statistics since entering his 30s were well circulated following his stunning hat-trick in Sochi on Friday – 52 goals scored before he was 30 and, after his goal against Morocco, 33 in the three years and five months since.
These are supposed to be the winding-down years for a footballer, more games from the bench than from the start, more injuries and the beginning of the process of phasing out of the first team. Instead he has won two more Ballon d’Ors and three more Champions Leagues. And he certainly shouldn’t have four goals in his opening two games in Russia. The man is nothing short of a Benjamin Button-esque anomaly.
The same cannot be said of his aging teammates however, who have well and truly started their winding-down years. Portugal have one of the oldest squads in Russia, with an average age of 28.3 and the likes of Pepe (35), Ricardo Quaresma (34), Jose Fonte (34), Joao Moutinho (31) and Bruno Alves (36) all key members of Fernando Santos’ travelling party.
The shock Euro 2016 win was supposed to be the last international stand for so many of this squad, yet here they are two years later, with eight of the players who started that final in Paris still in the starting line-up in Moscow, huffing and puffing and defending with their backs against the wall.
After the very early opening goal Portugal looked ragged, tired and lacking in energy in comparison to their Moroccan opponents. Portugal were very lucky to walk away with the three points in truth, and Morocco desperately unlucky to be left relying on Spain not winning against Iran to keep them in the tournament.
That’s why Portugal’s fate is tied to Ronaldo’s – they play well when he does; they leave frustrated and hurting when he does.
It’s not like the other teams in Russia. Argentina have Lionel Messi, Brazil have Neymar, even England have Harry Kane, but there is no greater gulf in talent between a squad and their superstar than there is with Portugal and Ronaldo. Contrast the way he burst through thunder home his header in comparison to the lethargic swipe of the boot by Fonte to half-relieve the pressure – time is coming for this Portugal squad, well 22 of the 23, Ronaldo is still outrunning it.
Earlier in this World Cup Patrice Evra recalled a story about the time Rio Ferdinand embarrassed Ronaldo at a game of table tennis in front of all his Manchester United teammates. Ashamed, and driven, Ronaldo went home, trained for two weeks with his own table, came back to Carrington and beat Ferdinand in front of the same group of screaming teammates.
Going into this summer in Russia, Ronaldo came back to the World Cup to avenge the same sort of embarrassment after his – and Portugal’s – showing at the 2014 edition in Brazil. A Selecao were humbled by Germany 4-0 and needed a 95th-minute goal to salvage a draw against USA, before Ronaldo got his customary solo World Cup goal – from the penalty spot against Ghana.
At 33, Ronaldo has come to Russia to ensure he never has to hear those howls when the conversation turns to World Cup achievements and has four goals to date, but it is not as easy for his fellow 30-somethings to follow his lead.
Whatever happens to Portugal in this World Cup, if those echoes of screaming laughter that Evra recalled are heard again, they should not be in jest of Ronaldo, but just of those around him.
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