The day he wore the No. 7 jersey for the first time, Cristiano Ronaldo cried. It was at the beginning of the 2003-04 season after David Beckham joined Real Madrid and the Portuguese teenager inherited the most famously-numbered shirt in the club’s history. The No. 7 shirt of George Best and Eric Cantona, of Beckham and Bryan Robson. But it was none of them that made him cry, but the memories of his idol Luis Figo.
“I know the No. 7 shirt has a great tradition at United and anyone would be proud to wear it,” he said then, before he paused, shed a drop of tear, and resumed: “For me, though, it is extra special because it is also Luis Figo’s number. When I was growing up in Portugal, Figo wore the 7 of Sporting Lisbon. Like any kid with dreams of being a footballer, I wanted to be Figo. I wanted to wear the No. 7.”
Months later, he would wear the same number for his country, in a friendly against Kazakhstan. Two decades later, he has made the number almost his own, the most famous No. 7 in the history of the game, CR7, a brand and identity in itself. Both in Real Madrid and Portugal, there is a feeling that the club and country should retire the number forever. But Ronaldo himself laughed away at the suggestion when a journalist put forth the question during the Euros. “It’s a legacy that should be passed on. I was not the first one to wear it, and it should be continued. Maybe, I will find my successor,” he said, laughing.
A worthy successor, though shirts are not always dispensed with the value of the replacement. For instance, a little-known striker named Mariano Diaz wears the shirt for Real Madrid. In four years, his appearances have been sporadic (just 46).
But Portugal might have discovered a worthy successor in Goncalo Ramos, the man who replaced Ronaldo and nailed a hat-trick in the 6-1 romp in the Round-of-16 match against Switzerland. There are multiple layers of symbolism — a promising young striker replaces the greatest Portuguese footballer ever, one of the all-time greats, the youngster scores the only hat-trick for his country after Ronaldo; the latter, 37, is slipping into the sunset while Ramos, just 21, is a star that is rising.
These are still early days to suggest that he is Ronaldo’s heir apparent, or that he is destined for greatness. But there are symbolic moments in football, like Lionel Messi scoring his first goal for Barcelona with an assist from Ronaldinhio.
There, though, are obvious portends. Ramos looks a far more complete modern-day striker than to be a one-match wonder. There was a CR7-in-Madrid ruthlessness about his finishing as well as the spatial awareness inside the box, that phase in his career when Ronaldo had evolved from being a mercurial winger to an exemplary goal-poacher. The first goal was fired from an impossible angle. Ramos was nearly 15 yards away from goal when he received the ball on his right foot. There was Fabian Schar, the Swiss centre-back, sniffling on him. Ramos shifted the ball to his left foot. The angle from that juncture seemed even more improbable. Probably, Schar too assumed as much and didn’t suffocate him as intensely as he should have. The far post was an impossible target; at the near post the space beside Swiss goalkeeper Yannick Sommer was minimal. One could squeeze in a cricket ball perhaps.
But Ramos unpacked his left foot, like a whiplash. The ball was hit just high enough to escape a stupefied Sommer’s swipe in fresh air, like a badminton player attempting a smash only to realise he was too late, but low enough to fly under the crossbar. In case of lashes with the in-step, the ball would always curl away from the goalkeeper, but Ramos ensured that it did not swing too much, lest it would zip across the face of the goal.
It was so much like a Ronaldo goal — one drawn in a geometry class, accurate to millimetres. He has a trademark celebration routine too, though not patented as Ronaldo’s SIU. He would contort his palms like a pistol and shoot with one eye closed like a sniper. He has time yet to invent an original. The cameras immediately panned onto the sullen face of Ronaldo. He was stone-faced, his head resting on the chin, his heart still rebelling against those that decided to bench him. Or was it him just playing along the script?
A contrast was struck when he leapt off the bench and celebrated his long-time friend Pepe’s headed goal barely 15 minutes later. The scandal-machine strummed to life. Why didn’t he celebrate Ramos’ goal? Was he simmering with angst? Was he reeling in jealousy? Or was it just that his mood got better? Whatever it be, let it remain as conjecture.
The cameras zoomed in on Ronaldo again, at the 51st minute of the game. Ramos barged into a crowded box and flicked a precise cross from Diogo Dalot goalwards. A classical poacher’s goal. Ronaldo-like in anticipation and the drive to get ahead of the rest of the pack, both defenders and his own teammates, to the end of the ball. This time too, Ronaldo did not smile. But he gave a nod of approval. Perhaps, this time, he had sensed a spark in the youngster.
Sixteen minutes later, Ramos joined Ronaldo as the only other Portuguese footballer to score a World Cup hat-trick. Ronaldo stood up, broke into a warm smile and clapped. There, finally, was recognition. Evident recognition. The goal was nothing but a casual clip over Sommer. Shades of Ronaldo again.
Beyond a point, the Ronaldo parallel becomes redundant, because there is no type of goal Ronaldo has not scored, or he has yet to score. But the larger point is that he has traits that made Ronaldo a goal-guzzler. The intuition and anticipation, the muscle and ruthlessness. The height too — both are six feet one.
The roles, even if one takes into account that Ronaldo is more of a No. 9 these days, are different. Ramos is a modern-day forward who presses, tracks backs and drags defenders towards him to manufacture space for fellow forwards. His mobility (and Ronaldo’s lack of it thereof) was a reason Portugal were a slicker side against Switzerland. Bruno Fernandes would add: “He’s a player that runs and works a lot, helps the team defensively, he’s that type of striker that is everywhere. He had the chance to score three goals, but he’s a striker that creates space for others, fights, has the ball and is strong.”
Shortly after his hat-trick, Ronaldo would replace the man who had replaced him. They exchanged a quick handshake and warm hug. Whether he inherits his No. 7 jersey or not, whether he leaps into fame or rolls into oblivion, he has impressed Ronaldo. Perhaps, Ronaldo would have found his heir to the No. 7 jersey in Ramos. Perhaps, Ramos, like several other pretenders to crowns and thrones, would wither. Nonetheless, Ramos replacing Ronaldo and scoring a hat-trick was a symbolic moment in Portugal’s football history.