With low expectations surrounding Portugal's chances, the World Cup provides Cristiano Ronaldo with a rare opportunity to play without significant pressure. So could this be the greatest player on the planet's chance to showcase his talent over perceived arrogance to phenomenal new levels?
Monday 16 June 2014 08:56, UK
If there was anything that symbolised the importance of Cristiano Ronaldo to Portugal's footballing success, it would be the quote from the country's President, Anibal Cavaco Silva, when presenting the player with Portugal's Grand Officer of the Order of Infante Dom Henrique.
"He is an athlete of international repute now converted into a symbol of the country," Silva said.
That is quite the proclamation from a Head of State, but it is far from an overstatement. Ronaldo does not just have to live up to Portugal's immense expectations, he is the brightest light of positivity in a nation still reeling from the debilitating effects of the economic recession. In Lisbon, they are proud to announce that Portugal produced the world's best player.
The dependence on Ronaldo, whose tendinosis gave Portugal a slight scare before the World Cup kicked off, is almost unprecedented in international football. Lionel Messi and Neymar are both crucial to the success of Argentina and Brazil, respectively, but both have world-class players around them. In Portugal's case, that simply is not true.
Ronaldo's influence was epitomised during the World Cup qualifying play-off with Sweden. Touted as a personal duel between Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the latter's brace in the second leg was upstaged by the brilliance of Ronaldo, a second-half hat-trick exhibiting the pace, skill and determination of a player at his magisterial best. It was a performance that persuaded FIFA to extend the voting for the Ballon D'Or, a prize for which Bayern Munich's Franck Ribery had, until then, been clear favourite.
There is little doubt the relative fragility of late of the Portuguese team, whose qualifying campaign came close to unmitigated disaster. Drawn in an apparently favourable group alongside Russia and Israel, Portugal stuttered and stumbled their way to Brazil from the moment they fell behind to minnows Luxembourg in their first qualifier. Home draws with Israel and Northern Ireland were combined with defeat in Russia and a last-gasp equalizer in Tel-Aviv, and it took a Ronaldo hat-trick to spare Portuguese blushes against Northern Ireland.
Paulo Bento seems devoted to a 4-3-3 system (although did experiment with 4-2-3-1 during the play-off against Sweden), but is unable to call on high-performing stars in the majority of positions. Nani has been out of favour at Manchester United for the last two seasons (14 league starts from a possible 76) and none of Helder Postiga, Hugo Almeida or Nelson Oliveira have the true quality desired at the top level of the international game. Miguel Veloso will likely be relegated to a place on the bench with the much-vaunted William Carvalho taking his place, with Raul Meireles among the other likely starting midfielders.
If the weaknesses in Bento's squad are apparent, they only intensify the reliance on the team's obvious strength. Ronaldo will be selected as the left of three forwards, but will have a role in which he can roam anywhere and everywhere in order to impact on matches, with the central forward (likely to be Postiga) having little pressure to score goals. If Postiga can occupy two defenders and create space for Ronaldo, his mission will have been accomplished. The clichéd label of the one-man team has never rung more true.
Ronaldo's critics might suggest that the Portuguese would not want it any other way. He is viewed as arrogant, conceited and egoistical in some quarters, part athlete and part prima donna. This is a footballer that many love to hate, more divisive an individual than perhaps any other in the game today.
In England, such distaste probably centres around his famous wink during the 2006 World Cup quarter-final following then-club team-mate Wayne Rooney's sending off, with Ronaldo's reputation for play-acting and a protracted transfer to Real Madrid doing him few favours in the eyes of the public. But there is an additional, deep-rooted dislike of over-confidence in this country. We are happy to idolise our sportsmen, but will show disdain towards those who sing their own praises - Ronaldo's ego is viewed as blatant arrogance.
The embodiment of Ronaldo's obsession with the self came during the UEFA Champions League semi-final second leg against Bayern Munich, when he scored Madrid's third goal. There was no gratitude for the brilliant pass from Gareth Bale, no thought of hailing the team effort in effectively confirming Real's first European Cup final in 12 years. Instead, Ronaldo chose to show the number 15 with his fingers, demonstrating how many goals he had scored to break the competition's seasonal goalscoring record. At a time when his team was heading for glory, this was blatant self-congratulation - Ronaldo's critics had their ammunition.
However, criticising Ronaldo for his ego is to misunderstand the role that such confidence plays at the highest level. There is a necessity for self-confidence in sport, because it provides an absolute belief in ability. It allows for setbacks to be acknowledged but then beaten, with psychological studies revealing that those with high self-confidence are likely to enjoy increased performance. Success breeds confidence and confidence breeds success, a self-fulfilling and positive prophecy.
Some of sport's greatest names have demonstrated their evident self-assurance. "I do not think it is bragging to say I am something special," was boxer Muhammad Ali's famous boast, while Pele, too, was usually bullish about his ability. "I think another Pele is a little difficult, because my mother and father closed the machine," is just one example of his self-promotion while, closer to home, Manchester United fans will have seen a great deal of Eric Cantona's personality during Ronaldo's time at Old Trafford.
Importantly with Ronaldo, those closest to him reject the notion that he is an arrogant individual. "He is not arrogant," former Manchester United team-mate Patrice Evra said. "He suffers as a result of his image as a fashion guy but honestly, he is the greatest professional I have ever trained with. He never has enough of it. This lad has to be first everywhere in everything."
Evra's comments hint at perhaps the greatest aspect of Ronaldo's success - despite the sponsorship deals and modelling contracts, this is the ultimate professional. He is the perfect athletic specimen, but that is achieved by continued hard work, something revealed by Manchester United development coach Mike Clegg.
Ronaldo was a natural talent, a rough diamond, but he crammed in thousands and thousands of hours of graft to turn himself into the perfect player." Clegg said. "He would be in the gym with me doing core work, then he would do activation, then his actual football training."
"After training, Cristiano would come back into the gym and do some power work for his legs," Clegg continued. "Then he would go home, eat the right food, swim, sleep, where I am sure he dreamed about football, and come back in the next morning. He did that for five or six years and, knitted together, that made him become the player who was sold for £80million."
That is the only possible route to winning a Ballon D'Or over Messi, one of the game's greatest ever players. There should be little doubt that Ronaldo is too far behind.
Such a picture of professionalism rather undermines the negative stereotypes that continue to tarnish Ronaldo. Perhaps it reflects an air of jealousy, but even in Brazil there are those who will wish him to fail on the biggest stage. It is a bizarre stance to take against someone so talented.
The World Cup in Brazil actually provides Ronaldo with a rare opportunity to play without significant expectation. Of course there will be millions of eyes focused on world football's most recognisable face, but his Portuguese side were ranked alongside England, Uruguay and Colombia as relative outsiders for the tournament. There is the opportunity for the world's best player to drag his side almost single-handedly into the latter stages of the tournament - no one will consider that more achievable than Ronaldo himself.