FIFA World Cup: The one man stand

After a loss to Germany, Portugal will once more look to Ronaldo, knowing defeat to USA will knock them out.

Written by Aditya Iyer | Manaus | Updated: June 22, 2014 10:42:59 am
Ronaldo had been reduced to going for long-rangers and speculative efforts against Germany. He had few scoring opportunities after Pepe’s red card. Ronaldo had been reduced to going for long-rangers and speculative efforts against Germany. He had few scoring opportunities after Pepe’s red card.

Cristiano Ronaldo stands with his feet pressed together in a goal-scoring position. Those legs are customarily apart when it’s his turn to take a free-kick or a penalty. But when awaiting a corner-kick in the box, it’s his eyes that spread wide across. His dilated pupils scan not just the kick-taker, but his every body posture and surrounding environs.

The corner is thumped in and swerves a fair distance away from Ronaldo, who jogs left, only to readjust his run more centrally in the final second while simultaneously lowering his spine. Then, with one swift motion, a bent Ronaldo catches the ball on his sagging left shoulder and swishes the back of the net with a twisting chest.

Right there, a most historic goal has been accomplished.

Why, you ask. Perhaps it may have skipped a mention earlier, but the Portuguese star’s eyes could well have been blindfolded. For Ronaldo managed every twitch of that goal-scoring maneuvre in absolute darkness. Dark as the depths of Mordor.

In 2013, a bunch of scientists from England wanted to know just how good Ronaldo’s art really was. So they created a specialised lab in Madrid, the city of his club life, and forensically investigated his every fibre for research purposes. First they switched off the lab lights a second after the kick was taken. Ronaldo headed the first one in and hoofed in the other. Then, the lights went off a second before the kick, during the kicker’s run-up.

You now already know what the result of that test was. “I mean his awareness is phenomenal,” said one scientist, gasping. “He doesn’t just watch the ball as the coaching manual asks you to. But his mind is calculating everything around it. Body position, distance, motion, swing, sound, touch, feel, everything. All while being blind as a bat.”

Super aware
The results of ‘Tested to the Limit’ (the label with which these sessions are now marketed) pretty much proves that the 29-year old is not just more aware than your average professional footballer (a Bradmanesque percentile was achieved in the late 99s), but more spatially inclined to a stimuli than almost every member of his species on planet earth.

Aerially reactive too. With his rarest of gifts, Ronaldo — a man who can activate every other sense to score without sight just as well as Beethoven could compose music without the help of sound — is perhaps just short on the evolutionary scale of fluttering his arms and learning to fly. Yet, that may be more feasible for the Portugal captain than, say, winning a World Cup with his feet grounded to earth.

For, lest we forget, football is a team sport. And getting the rest of his squad members to react to match-play half as well as a half-fit him is an exercise in futility. Like solving football’s equivalent of the Reimann Hypothesis.

Ronaldo has long carried the weight of a nation’s expectations, like a Portuguese Atlas. Or a Eusebio. Quite in tune with the former Portugal forward who alone ensured his team finish third at the 1966 World Cup in England with nine goals, the boy from Funchal has taken his country to the final of Euro 2004 and the semifinals of World Cup 2006. And this, unlike the late Eusebio, Ronaldo has managed without scoring goals very often.

In the midst of his third World Cup, he has scored a total of two times in the maroon of the Portugal jersey. “Cristiano needs a better side at his behest to score more goals,” says Joao Alberto, who arrived in Manaus a few days before Portugal’s all-important group game against the USA. “With Real Madrid, Cristiano either creates or bags goals. Here he needs to do both at the same time.”

He did, during the final round of qualifiers for Brazil. Against Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s Sweden, Ronaldo netted each of Portugal’s four goals over two legs (including a hat-trick in the second leg) to send his great self and 22 others into the finals. That performance (and not his 67 goals for Madrid in this Copa del Rey and Champions League-winning season), believe the critics, finally turned the elusive Ballon d’Or in his direction.

But all the awards and accolades in the world couldn’t save Portugal in their campaign opener last week.
Against Germany in Salvador, a limping Ronaldo and 10 other inept men (nine, once you discount a red-carded Pepe) made Portugal look abysmal. They conceded four goals in all, three in the first half and a hat-trick to Thomas Mueller. On one leg, Ronaldo was juggling the vastly varied roles of being the team’s leader, creator and finisher. At most times, he tried doing it all at once. It, of course, just didn’t work.

Dealing with an angry ron

At the final whistle, only the overwhelming sensations of anger and frustration seemed to stop tears from rolling down his cheeks mid-pitch. But he was seething enough for USA coach Jurgen Klinsmann to be notified about it before Sunday’s game. “I don’t know how Cristiano Ronaldo behaves when he’s angry,”said Klinsmann, who incidentally didn’t hope for Ronaldo to win the Ballon d’Or (his vote went to Franck Ribery while Ronaldo didn’t even feature in his top three). “But we expect a very difficult game.”

Despite being spotted with a knee-brace on a day before the match, Ronaldo is expected to be fit just time to harness more burden. This, of course, makes DaMarcus Beasely, one of his many expected markers at the Arena Amazonia, worry. “We all know he is the best player in the world. Even one or two extra guys can’t completely stop him,” the 32-year old Beasely said.

What then is supposed to be done, he was asked. Beasely threw his hands up in the air and joked: “Well, you can catch him unawares and foul him.”

Foul him, maybe. Catch him unawares? Scientifically attested to be improbable.

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