If the sports story of the 2010s was the new breed of meta-athletes who would fly forever, 2022 is the moment they started hitting solar turbulence.
Serena Williams seemed to leave in September. She didn’t use indictable words such as “retiring,” but she was feted as though she had. Roger Federer quit a couple of weeks later.
Neither had been a real force for some years, but people still talked as though they were. It was a good way to sell clothing and ointments: ‘If this guy can play pro tennis in his 40s, then you owe it to yourself to dress like a college kid into your 70s.’
Shorn of its two best global salespeople, the geriatric sports movement went looking for new figureheads.
Tom Brady was an obvious one. He plays a sport 95 per cent of the world doesn’t really get, but so handsome.
In the north part of North America, Brady is a football player. Everywhere else, he’s Gisele Bundchen’s plus 1.
At 45, Brady was no longer selling athletic excellence. He was selling a masculine version of the ‘have it all’ ethos. You, too, can be ageless, virile, respected by your colleagues, rich as Croesus and married to an equally ageless, equally famous woman.
Brady no longer needed to win games to matter. His most important job was maintaining that public image.
As can happen once systems reach perfect stasis, Brady’s life has become a cascading failure since. His wife doesn’t seem to like him much any more and the football’s not going so hot either.
As the tabloids circle and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers come undone, Brady thought it would be a good time to reaffirm his commitment. To football.
“There’s no immediate retirement in my future,” Brady said on his own podcast. “There was a retirement, but I moved on from that.”
It’s possible this guy really does think he is Doctor Who. That the retirement comes first, followed by a whole working life.
What Brady doesn’t get – what would be unfair for a laser beam of a human such as himself to get – is that it’s already over.
It doesn’t matter what happens with the football any more. At 27, the football mattered.
But at 45, his professional life had become an act of superhuman balance. That balance has come undone.
Everything Brady does in the immediate future will be coloured by sadness. He picked football over family. Whatever the truth of it, that’s what it looks like from the outside. In the world Brady occupies, looks are all that matters.
Outside this continent, geriatric perfection is personified by Cristiano Ronaldo. He’s not old old. But at 37, he’s older than any other great soccer forward.
Even a couple of years ago, Ronaldo was still being treated like a player whose best days lay ahead. His former club, Juventus, is being investigated for paying him under the table during the initial stages of the pandemic. According to reports out of Italy, every other guy on the club took a four-month salary holiday, but Ronaldo was promised €20-million.
Two years later, that Ronaldo is gone now. It doesn’t matter how many push-ups he does a day or how much time he spends in cryotherapy. Sports is unkind to aging legs. It is cruel to aging egos.
When Manchester United picked up Ronaldo last year, the idea was that he would add glamour and ballast to the listing super club. The balance was always going to be a reach, but who knew the glamour would vanish as well.
Last week, he took offence at not being subbed into a game (after presumably taking offence at not being started in the game). Before the match had ended, Ronaldo made a great show of leaving the field.
United’s been trying to get rid of Ronaldo for months now. It is willing to give him away for free. But no one wants the headache (or the US$32-million salary).
United hired a tough new Dutch coach, Erik ten Hag, last off-season. That’s how you know it is serious, because there’s nothing tougher in soccer than a Dutch coach.
Ten Hag’s macro task is to rescue what was not so long ago the most important sports franchise on Earth. In order to start doing that, his micro task is getting Ronaldo under control. So far, so bad.
After the last petulant outburst, Ronaldo was banished from first-team training – a mark of Cain in high-level soccer. The adults train over here, and you’re over there with, I don’t know, David Beckham’s kids.
Ronaldo issued a sort-of apology that did not include the words “apology” or “sorry.” According to Ronaldo, Ronaldo acts out because he cares too much.
Ten Hag took him back. On Thursday, United plays a minuscule Moldovan club in European competition.
United Kremlinologists will be looking to see how Ronaldo factors into the game. If he starts, all is (temporarily) well. If he’s on the bench, it’s 50/50 that he and ten Hag get into a fistfight at halftime. Either way, there is no comeback from this. At best, Ronaldo has begun a long, dignity-free tumble down the ranks of world soccer. Expect him in Major League Soccer any moment now.
Like Brady, Ronaldo presumably sees these latest setbacks as one of a million imputations on his ability, stretching back into childhood. Both men have famously nurtured an outsized sense of grievance. Ronaldo still talks about his impoverished upbringing. Brady can still rhyme off the name of every quarterback taken before him in the draft.
Grievance is a wonderful spur to greatness, but it doesn’t do you many favours when it comes to maintaining that position.
At some point, your abilities will be outstripped. Once that happens in professional sports, all you have is your brand. Some lesser players go on forever and ever on the strength of a pristine reputation – good guy in the room, excellent mentor, willing to go to the dirty places.
The best in history do not go to the dirty places. It’s that, and not just genetic decay, that guarantees that every one of these ageless wonders will end like Hemingway’s bankruptcies – gradually, and then suddenly.