The last few days have been tough on Cristiano Ronaldo. For those who just want to play football forever, ageing can be difficult to accept.
It is clear that this is another sign that I’m going soft in my old age, but I’m starting to have some degree of empathy for Cristiano Ronaldo. I’m not certain that I’d go so far as to say that it’s blooming into full-blown sympathy yet – stick a pin in that – but after watching the narrative of Portugal’s win over Switzerland, it’s been difficult to avoid this clunky-looking allegory for the passing of time.
I was fortunate that the end of my own time playing football was a firm dividing line that I crossed and then never viewed with any regret. I’d started feeling increasing stiffness in my legs after games towards the end of the previous season, even though at 32, I hoped to eke out a few more years yet.
But at the end of the first friendly of the following season, it felt as though the internals of my knees had been hacked out and replaced by cricket balls with needles sticking out of them. The following morning, I was walking as though on stilts. I’d had osgood-schlätter disease as a teenager and had played alongside a couple of people who’d ruptured their ACLs, and consequently their lives. I’d broken my leg as a player and it had cost me my job; I wasn’t taking any further chances.
I didn’t earn a living from football, and it has never been all-consuming for me. It didn’t make me immensely wealthy and one of the most recognisable faces on the planet, while offering me levels of adulation that are frankly unimaginable to most of us proles. It was never everything I ever knew. But what does that post-playing period – otherwise known as ‘the rest of your life’ – look like when this one thing is more or less everything you’ve done for as long as you can remember?
I’m not saying that Cristiano Ronaldo seems to be having difficulty coming to terms with the end of his career, but I am saying that I’d understand if he was. He wouldn’t be the first and he won’t be the last. For most players, football is all they’ve done since their young childhoods. At the level at which he has played it is a bubble, usually protected from the vagaries and challenges of the outside world by its vast wealth. The temptation to just believe that this must just go on forever must be overwhelmingly tempting.
And in this case, it’s not just the fact that this is all happening; it’s also the way in which it’s unravelling. The rumour that he would not be starting against Switzerland had started a day earlier but the formal confirmation came during the match between Morocco and Spain, blowing up social media.
Cristiano Ronaldo may be a man well used to having a camera shoved in his face, but his arrival at the stadium for the match was accompanied by what looked like even more than ever. Things only seemed to get more extreme when the teams came onto the pitch before kick-off, with something approaching a scrum appearing around the substitutes’ bench as photographers jostled to capture The Sadness In His Eyes for our entertainment. At one point, there seemed to be more interest in him than in his team standing to attention for the national anthems. In most respects this isn’t surprising, but it still made for a jarring juxtaposition.
And then the game starts. The guy that they brought in to replace you scores a delightful hat-trick on his first full appearance. Even Pepe, the only guy in the team older than you (one of eight in the entire tournament), manages to get on the scoresheet. With the team leading 5-1 and with 17 minutes to play you come on as a substitute. It’s not clear whether this is a valedictory lap of honour or not. It might be.
You make the one run, but you’re a couple of yards offside. You carry on through and finish it anyway. Still got it. The crowd, which seems to be packed with your fans rather than the two nations taking part, roars its approval regardless. At the final whistle, your team has put in the best performance by any team in this tournament and one or two commentators have noted that this upturn coincides with you having been left out of the starting XI. You have to look delighted as the team celebrates a historic win.
From nowhere, Portugal are being talked of as though they could go a long way in this World Cup. It seems inconceivable that Ronaldo will be back in the starting XI, though with his level of celebrity it’s always a possibility. After all, when something similar happened earlier this season at Manchester United, he was back in the team within days. He was captain within weeks.
But for the Portugal coach Fernando Santos, the situation is very different to what happened at Manchester United. He is three games from the greatest prize in world football, and such an opportunity may never present itself again. Self-belief must now be flowing through the team that played against Switzerland like a tsunami. It would surely be a dereliction of duty for Santos to do anything but pick the same attackers for their next game.
How would it feel for Cristiano Ronaldo to sit on the bench throughout an entire World Cup final? Would he get a cameo appearance? What if they won? Would he get to lift the trophy? How would that feel? Much is made of Cristiano Ronaldo’s lack of self-awareness. At points like this, it feels like it would be a relief if he doesn’t have any.
Cristiano Ronaldo is not easy to like. That’s fairly common knowledge, and his public persona has been further muddied by allegations from his private life which may have been legally resolved, but have left a mark. But it also should be acknowledged that the incidents of the last few days come at the end of a terrible year for him that has not been limited to football, and you don’t have to like somebody to feel empathy for them in one moment. And I do want to be clear that I’m claiming no moral high ground here. I was hooting along in derision along with everybody else. After all, and not even for the first time this season, much of this is also self-inflicted on account of his own behaviour.
In a couple of weeks this will all be over, for better or for worse. A retirement season may await in Saudi Arabia, a hotbed of Ronaldo fanboyism, even if he is currently denying that anything is a done deal. It might be good for him to accept the offer. The money will starting flowing into his bank account again and the adulation will return. He’ll probably score a few more goals, too. It’s knowing this likely eventuality that stops me from feeling much sympathy for him. If that lack of self-awareness is real, he’ll be fine.
But the ageing process will continue. Money can delay it, but not to the extent that it can indefinitely extend the sort of professional football career that Cristiano Ronaldo would like. His playing career will end because playing careers always do. All the money in the world can only ever delay or postpone the ageing process. And speaking as somebody who’s already more than 12 years further down that line than him – and so much worse physical condition than him that we may be considered a different species to each other – I can assure him that it doesn’t get any easier from here.