After getting subbed out of Portugal’s last group game, Cristiano Ronaldo had a bit of a snit. Someone asked his head coach, Fernando Santos, if he’d noticed.
“Have I seen the images?” Santos said. “I didn’t like it. Not at all.”
Ten years ago, if Ronaldo had stabbed Santos with a pen after coming off the field, Santos would have said, “Please, sir, can I have another?” But those days are gone.
On Tuesday, Ronaldo was dumped from Portugal’s starting lineup. It’s hard to say if that was Santos making a point, or Santos taking an opportunity to marginalize a national hero who’s lost his mojo. Maybe both.
Unfortunately for Ronaldo, it worked. Portugal hammered Switzerland 6-1 on Tuesday. Worse, Ronaldo’s replacement, Goncalo Ramos, scored three times. Portugal faces upstart Morocco in the quarter-finals on the weekend, and one senses a trend in the making.
There are two ways to go when you find yourself reaching the natural end of something – you get cranky or you lose interest.
Ronaldo has gotten cranky. Lionel Messi is losing interest. That they are doing so together at the same time in the same place should suggest a vital bond. But rarely in sports history have two athletes so twinned by history, circumstance and ability seemed as disconnected personally.
After being fired by Manchester United in the midst of this tournament, Ronaldo is currently out of work. According to Spanish sports paper Marca, he’s on the cusp of signing for a club in Saudi Arabia.
Like a lot of jobs taken by foreigners in the Middle East, the pay is incredible, but no one can understand why that’s enough. Marca says Ronaldo is being offered €200-million ($285-million) for one year.
Is Ronaldo that big a draw any more? He hasn’t exactly lit it up here. He’s still a slippery fish directly in front of goal, but he no longer leaps over defenders like they are waterfalls.
Another low point in the group stages – Ronaldo rose to head a shot already on its way into the opposing goal, and then celebrated like it was his. Replays showed he hadn’t touched the ball.
This guy has scored a million highlight-reel goals in his career, and here he is trying to claim something fairly ordinary that wasn’t even his. As larceny goes, that is extremely petty.
Ronaldo’s place near the peak of the football’s historical organizational chart is assured. But the key word is ‘near.’ The top spot is a rapidly vanishing point.
Let us assume that Portugal is not going to win this tournament (though it has the non-Ronaldo-based talent to do so). What happens then? Ronaldo disappears off to Saudi Arabia to make a bucketload more money he doesn’t need, giving up the only thing that matters to him – attention.
After that it’s just a matter of how depressing this can get. Will he be begging his way back onto a Portugal team that won’t need or want him in four years’ time? For his sake, I hope not.
Messi, 35, is going through the same process, but far more pleasantly. He started out in Qatar looking tired and bored, but roused himself over the last couple of outings. Still, Argentina was at panic stations near the end of beating Australia in the round-of-16. Australia!
Messi & Co. remain nearly favourites to win this World Cup, though it’s hard to see why. They lack France’s spark, Brazil’s depth or England’s drive. Take nostalgia out of it and what seems likeliest to happen is a semi-final dismantling by their South American rival.
If Argentina doesn’t win it, Messi becomes the country’s permanent runner-up. Like Ronaldo, he won a ton of stuff (including being named world player of the year seven times). Also like Ronaldo, he won’t have the only trophy that matters.
Without a World Cup title, history will remember Messi as soccer’s greatest technician and Diego Maradona’s better-behaved understudy.
What’s Messi’s next move after this ends?
Like Ronaldo, he is reportedly leaving Europe, but he’ll take comfort over cash. Multiple reports have Messi moving to Miami some time soon to join Major League Soccer. You can see the appeal. Miami is the only Spanish-speaking metropolis on Earth in which Messi won’t be hounded every time he leaves the house. To a man like that, going alone to Starbucks must seem like a forbidden thrill.
It also means the end of his professional life. Messi will still be playing soccer, but the sort that is below his dignity.
Hearing his plan, one is reminded of Mexico’s Cuauhtemoc Blanco. One of the greatest-ever players to skip Europe, Blanco joined MLS when he was 34 – about the same age and stage that Messi is now.
Blanco was out of shape and bored. You could see that. But he was so gifted compared to his colleagues that all he needed to do was stand still at the centre of the field and distribute. Blanco might not run the length of the field over the course of an entire game, and could still be the best player on it. That’s Messi’s future.
According to Messi watchers, his plan is to take it easy in MLS for four years in the hopes that he still has some gas left for the 2026 World Cup. One last shot at the prize. But by then, Messi will be 39.
Maradona won a World Cup by himself. Winning one as a bit player isn’t going to be good enough to equal the master. So really, what’s the point?
It is an irony that these two geniuses find themselves at the same fork in the same road at the same time. Because you never see Ronaldo and Messi interact.
At most, they’ve sat awkwardly alongside each other at a few awards shows. Given all sorts of chances to either critique or embrace each other, they have instead opted for a wary respect. It’s been a 15-year masterclass in restraint.
But here they are again, joined at the professional hip, marching lockstep into de facto retirement.
At one time, you’d have said only one of them could get exactly what he wanted in the end. Now, it’s starting to look like both will end up unanimously admired, fantastically rich and low-key disappointed.