RUL­ING THE WORLD IS RON­ALDO’S UL­TI­MATE AM­BI­TION

Por­tu­gal’s record goalscorer is run­ning out of chances to lift the only tro­phy to have eluded him dur­ing an il­lus­tri­ous ca­reer, writes Andy Mit­ten

The National - News - - SPORT WORLD CUP 2018 -

The only ma­jor tro­phy in foot­ball which nei­ther Cris­tiano Ron­aldo nor Lionel Messi have ever won is the World Cup. Messi came clos­est when Argentina reached the fi­nal four years ago only to lose to Ger­many in ex­tra time.

In his three previous at­tempts, the fur­thest Ron­aldo has pro­gressed is the semi-fi­nal stage, when they lost 1-0 to France in 2006.

The Por­tuguese reached the last eight in 2010 in Ger­many, but could not get out of the group stage in Brazil four years ago.

At 33, this is likely to be Ron­aldo’s last chance while he is a top player, though he re­cently claimed that he in­tends to play un­til he is 41. Given his mo­ti­va­tion for con­tin­u­ally prov­ing doubters wrong, it would be a brave per­son who ruled him out of lining up in 2026 at the tour­na­ment shared by the United States, Mex­ico and Canada. That would mean a fur­ther two World Cups for the Real Madrid for­ward, but older play­ers in a top league tend to quit in­ter­na­tional foot­ball long be­fore club foot­ball.

Even with an in-form Ron­aldo, Por­tu­gal, the Euro­pean cham­pi­ons, are not con­sid­ered as one of the favourites to win the tour­na­ment.

Be­ing in a tough group with Spain, Morocco and an Iran team un­beaten in com­pet­i­tive games for four years is a factor, yet Por­tu­gal were sim­i­larly dis­re­garded two years ago at the Euro­pean Cham­pi­onships in France.

Por­tu­gal went on to win, al­beit in a dour style, draw­ing matches and snatch­ing vic­to­ries in ex­tra time or on penal­ties.

They ben­e­fited from a favourable draw in the knock­out rounds, in­ad­ver­tently cre­ated by their me­diocre form in the group stages, as a draw with Ice­land left them third in Group F.

If they had topped the group they would have faced in-form Bel­gium, in­stead they got Croa­tia and then Poland.

They played Wales in the semi-fi­nal be­fore over­com­ing a France side cramped by their own fears in the fi­nal.

Per­for­mances have been unim­pres­sive since that Paris fi­nal, but Por­tu­gal get re­sults – they won nine of their 10 qual­i­fy­ing games un­der man­ager

Since mak­ing his de­but in 2003, Ron­aldo has played 150 times for his coun­try, scor­ing 81 goals – both Por­tuguese records

Fer­nando San­tos. They also reached the semi-fi­nals in the Con­fed­er­a­tions Cup a year ago.

Ron­aldo re­mains the stand out star and was a very in­ter­ested ob­server of this week’s bomb­shell for Spain, Por­tu­gal’s first op­po­nents to­day in Sochi.

De­parted Spain coach Julen Lopetegui will be­come his new boss at Real Madrid and in­ter­net memes pic­tured Ron­aldo and Madrid’s pres­i­dent Florentino Perez laugh­ing as if they had col­luded to up­set Spain on the eve of the World Cup.

Ron­aldo has is­sues of his own with Perez and was un­wise to speak out on live tele­vi­sion about his Madrid fu­ture min­utes after the Cham­pi­ons League fi­nal vic­tory against Liver­pool two weeks ago. As his team­mates cel­e­brated a third con­sec­u­tive Euro­pean Cup, Ron­aldo hinted that his fu­ture might not be at the Bern­abeu.

Even by his own self-cen­tred stan­dards of con­stantly pos­tur­ing for im­proved con­tracts, it was too much and he backed down the fol­low­ing day.

From his per­spec­tive, he is the best player on the planet and should be paid more than any other, but Por­tu­gal’s great­est ever player only ever looks avari­cious and slighted.

Manch­ester United fans are tired of him al­low­ing his peo­ple to link him to a re­turn to Old Traf­ford – and the club are once bit­ten, twice shy.

Sir Alex Fer­gu­son even told his play­ers that Ron­aldo was com­ing back to Manch­ester in 2013, but Fer­gu­son de­parted and Ron­aldo’s in­ten­tions are al­ways doubt­ful.

Since mak­ing his de­but in 2003, Ron­aldo has played 150 times for his coun­try, scor­ing 81 goals – a record un­matched by any player in Rus­sia.

He scored 15 goals in qual­i­fy­ing games – an­other record un­matched by any player in Rus­sia, but scor­ing four times against An­dorra or a hat-trick against the Faroe Is­lands – as Por­tu­gal’s cap­tain did in qual­i­fy­ing – is not where Ron­aldo will be judged.

He re­mains a match win­ner and while Por­tu­gal, who can only draw from a coun­try with 10 mil­lion in­hab­i­tants, do not have the strength in depth of Spain who can draw from five times as many, they do have other ex­cel­lent play­ers.

Goncalo Guedes, 21, who played up front along­side Ron­aldo in their last friendly, a 3-0 win over Al­ge­ria, was mag­nif­i­cent for Va­len­cia last sea­son.

Fel­low wide man, Bernardo Silva, 23, is very highly rated by Manch­ester City. Vet­eran de­fend­ers Pepe, 35 and Bruno Alves, 36, play in front of the ex­cel­lent Rui Pa­tri­cio, but the fo­cus will al­ways be on Ron­aldo.

He knows it, he is in good form and ready to win a first ever World Cup, but it re­mains the great­est ask of a stel­lar ca­reer.

Reuters

Cris­tiano Ron­aldo scored 15 times dur­ing Por­tu­gal’s qual­i­fi­ca­tion cam­paign

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