Portugal’s new coach Roberto Martinez is aligning his attack, with Ronaldo as the main focal point. Ronaldo, still fit, is ready to break the age-stereotype
Cristiano Ronaldo limped through the tunnel with his head dropped and his face concealed in the shirt after the Qatar World Cup match, which saw Morocco defeat Portugal and advance to the quarterfinals. He moved past laughing Moroccan players, who all took a moment out of their euphoria to console the great and praise him as if it were his international goodbye. The trophy he has wanted to win the most throughout his life, the only one missing from his trophy-filled wall, may not be worth another attempt now that he is 37.
He sobbed and wiped the tears that were bursting from his eyes as he neared the dark tunnel’s centre. Fernando Santos, the coach, would afterwards add:
“Cristiano Ronaldo and I could have been the two who were most angry about the game, if we were to pick just two. Ronaldo crying in public was meant to be the bitter goodbye image of a footballer who detested being photographed doing so. He soon left Manchester United, the ego that fuels his football accomplishments battered, and withdrew into the slow buzz of a football wasteland, far from the gruel of heart-stopping football chores of Europe, far from the strangling grasps of systems and styles, to a place where he could at last be his own, the free spirit.
However, Ronaldo is built of such a fire substance that he would not just give up on his aspirations or fade away in silence. Like many champions, he would be equally enthralled and motivated by the pursuit of the unrealized ambition. It serves as their life’s drug, spark, and purpose. So quickly returned Ronaldo to Portugal, revitalised and driven by the desire to bring home medals for his nation, despite without openly discussing his aspirations. Santos’ lengthy and tumultuous reign came to an end, with his last moments marred by the choice to sit Ronaldo during the World Cup’s knockout rounds.The former Belgium gaffer Roberto Martinez, who failed to spark Belgium’s golden generation to a meaningful title, was appointed as his successor.
It was good news for Ronaldo, as Martinez is not quite the definition of an ultramodern tactician. Unlike most modern managers, he does not fret over pressing. He would look to build from the back, hoard possession and move the ball patiently upfield, often through the wings. So immediately, he tuned up Portugal in his preferred 3-4-2-1 formation and its more attacking variant 3-4-3, (in 75 of his 79 games with Portugal, he played a back three) with Ronaldo as the focal point in both. The formation should suit Ronaldo on two counts. A) He would get a lot of service from the creative midfield and he needn’t play-make much. B) He is not expected to defend, or press. He could roam like a conventional poacher, break the line and shuttle in and out of space.
Ronaldo has relished this newfound freedom, the unburdening of pressing duties modern-day forwards are expected to perform. So in the last five games, he has knocked off five goals, though two of them free-kicks. But he was still sharp and strong, outmuscling the defenders and imposing both his stature and power on them. The winner in the Euro qualifiers against Iceland, his 200th appearance for his country, was a classic Ronaldo strike, in the 89th minute. Breaking from goalmouth melee, he latched onto a cushioned header from Inacio Goncalo and bunted the goal home, totally unmarked.
Aside from the goal, he was his usual self, appealing for handballs and fouls, twinkling and drifting past the defenders, always foreseeing his teammates designs, always at the end of the passes, always finding for himself inside the box. He is not as quick as he once was, not as energetic either, but he is as intuitive and crafty as he always had been. The coach is super impressed. “When you’re out, you don’t know the secret. Playing until he was 38, playing the games he played… When you’re with him, you understand why. His commitment, his total dedication, that incredible desire to be the best and improve everyone. It’s something we see in very young players. It’s something I learned from him: you can always be young with experience.”
Under Martinez, he missed just 35 minutes total in four games, demonstrating how important he was to the group. He was taken off twice before the 75th minute mark, both times with Portugal already in the lead by three goals or more. How Martinez will use Ronaldo was a question he was asked before the qualification season even began. Like how all the managers before me had used him, as the key guy, as the team’s emblem, he remarked with eloquence. You are well aware of what you receive from him.
The biggest challenge for Ronaldo would be to keep himself in European-standard match shape. Then Ronaldo is not someone who ignores fitness drills. Al Nassr’s nutritionist Jose Bielsa was shocked to see the improvement of the players since the arrival of Ronaldo. “Since he arrived here, all the players have been training harder and following a stricter diet. I have not seen a club like this in which the players improve practically 90% in their body composition every time I see them. They have less fat, more muscle and they do all the exercises at their fingertips,” Jose Blesa was quoted as saying. Against Ireland, he was as fit and agile as he had been when playing in Europe. Martinez reckons that his Saudi stint would only benefit his international career in that he remains fresh, unlike in Europe where the league would drain players on international duty.
Now that he is central to Martinez’s schemes, the bigger question is how long he could carry on. He would be 40 when the Euro kicks off, he would be 42 by the time the World Cup in 2026. Ronaldo has made a career out of busting stereotypes and predictions. He could bust the age stereotype too, driven by the endless quest for El Dorado in North America.