With his eyes closed, his mind designing the shot his right foot would take, Cristiano Ronaldo took a deep, meditative breath. The world around him stopped to take a deep breath as well. He opened his eyes steadily and sharply. The world did too. He took the first step from him.
In his mind, in his imagination, the world around him too. He took his next step. The third was a fluid movement of his right foot. He sounds like music when he hits the ball exactly how he wants to, like the sweetest beat of a drum. The ball flew, and it felt like it was going to burst the net for a while.
This was Ronaldo’s moment, in the 65th minute of the game, the inevitable moment, but one that seemed never to come.
The 37-year-old became the first player to score in five different editions of the World Cup.
In the end, Portugal showed they were more than Ronaldo, holding their nerve and beating Ghana 3-2 in a frantic thriller that sprung to life after the Ronaldo moment; they have been more than him for a while. Yet, often, it is all about him
For all the magnitude and magic of the match, for all the drama, skills and thrills that could unfold, the silk of Joao Felix and the steel of Ghana to stir a rousing comeback, the narrative would always be woven around Ronaldo.
Perhaps, as he always likes it to be. What he would and would not, every stride of his dissected, every emotion he sheds inspected, every mood captured not solely because he is one of football’s immortals but because of the build-up, the background.
How the prolonged soap opera would affect Ronaldo’s World Cup has been subject to much conjecture, hypothesis and speculation.
It could be the fuel that could power his dream of winning the World Cup; it could be the perfect repartee to the Manchester United managers who had snubbed, spooked and snapped him, that they were all grossly wrong about him; it could be the glowing vindication of superstardom, the supreme triumph of individualism, that the un-bottling of accumulated frustration could cleanse his mind.
It could also be his undoing, entering the World Cup with the pressure of proving his doubters and critics wrong, that his club managers were not wrong after all, that his self-absorption could hamper his team’s title charge, that he could be drowned out in the immensity of the stormy build-up, that it is an unnecessary distractionWhichever way it unfolds, there would always be theatre. There always is a theatre with Ronaldo.
Unlike his great peer, the reclusive and self-effacing Lionel Messi, Ronaldo has an irresistible affliction for the arc-lights, an unabashed, single-minded quest for ultimate sporting glory, a self-instilled, smouldering self-belief that he is above everything. It’s a bubble he has wrapped himself in.
He wants the team to be built around him; he needs the team to converge into him. So it is with Messi; all groups, even PSG in his autumnal bloom, have been built around him, but he conveys, with his persona, a sense of all-for-one, one-for-all camaraderie. But with Ronaldo, perhaps for no fault of his, it seems he wants the world to gravitate towards him.