Cristiano Ronaldo: will the World Cup be his destiny?

Ahead of Portugal’s opening World Cup clash with Germany tonight, we profile their inspirational captain.

June 16, 2014

More than 190 years after Brazil declared itself independent of Portugal, a 29 year-old from a small island southwest of Lisbon is crossing the Atlantic once again, this time with the intention of conquering not just the country, but the world.

Unless you have spent the past four years locked in an Albuquerque meth lab, you will be well aware the Fifa World Cup is already up and running.

The host nation, spearheaded by the faux-hawked, foul-inducing Neymar, is the people’s choice: a combination of the popular vote and the poster boy. Argentina and Lionel Messi are the rebels’ favourites: fierce rivals of Brazil, but with the most gifted player on Earth.

Behind the two South American behemoths, bookmakers are tipping Germany, Spain, Belgium, France, Italy, Colombia, Holland and Uruguay to be more likely to lift football’s most coveted trophy on July 13 than poor ol’ Portugal.

Enter Cristiano Ronaldo. Or, rather, Cristiano as he is known in Brazil, where the only Ronaldo locals acknowledge is the buck-toothed striker who led them to victory at the 2002 World Cup.Ronaldo's four goals in two games against Sweden ensured Portugal's qualification for the World Cup.

 You must go back as far as 1978 to find a World Cup where a country boasting the reigning Ballon d’Or winner was not deemed one of the favourites. Allan Simonsen was voted the world’s best player 37 years ago, but Denmark failed to qualify for the finals a few months later.

For Portugal this summer, it could have been a similar situation were it not for their skipper, who single-handedly dragged the team to Brazil. In a two-legged, winner-takes-all, play-off against Sweden, the Real Madrid forward scored all four of his country’s goals, including a hat-trick in Stockholm. It was the kind of performance fans have grown accustomed to.

Since joining Real Madrid in 2009 for AED 496 million, Ronaldo has scored 164 times in 142 starts. For Portugal, two goals against Cameroon in March made him his country’s all-time top scorer with 49 from 110 appearances. It is nearly impossible to overstate his importance to his national team.

Ronaldo is without doubt Portugal’s pilot. Superlatives do not do him justice.

Paulo Bento, the Portugal coach, dismisses the notion his side are a one-man team, but without their captain they certainly appear devoid of a match-winner. João Moutinho, Nani, Pepe, Bruno Alves, Raul Meireles: all proven talents in Europe’s top leagues. Yet like a plane without a pilot, they are going nowhere fast. And Ronaldo is without doubt Portugal’s pilot.

During qualifying for the 2012 European Championships, the former Manchester United forward missed two games through injury: a home draw to Cyprus and a defeat at Norway. Having recovered, he led his country on a five-match winning streak. Superlatives do not do him justice. In one of his many big-money sponsorship deals, Ronaldo is a brand ambassador for Tag Heuer.Luis Figo was captain of the Portugal team when Ronaldo first burst on to the international scene. Together they reached the final of the 2004 European Championships. Figo, winner of the Ballon d’Or in 2000, said: “There are things Ronaldo can do with a football that make me scratch my head and wonder how on Earth he did it.” Since then, Ronaldo has taken his country to two semifinals, a quarterfinal and a World Cup 2010 round of 16 tie, which they lost to eventual winners Spain.

In Brazil, in an atmosphere that he should find more comfortable than most given the shared language, he will undoubtedly be centre of attention, even if his team are not. Whether walking in Sao Paulo’s bustling CBD, gawking in Rio de Janeiro’s catwalk-like beach bars or docking in the Amazonian city of Manaus, everybody accepts Ronaldo and Messi are the game’s two standout talents. More surprisingly though, the majority of Brazilians prefer the pocket-sized Argentine to the pouting Portuguese, despite the fact Messi wears the infamous blue-and-white stripes.

“Neymar, of course, we hope is the star of the World Cup, but everybody accepts Messi and Cristiano are the two best players,” says Alan Pessoa, a self-employed grafter sipping a cold beer and chatting football close to the Port of Manaus. “Cristiano is more powerful and direct. Messi is more like us, he plays the game like we do and likes to dribble. He must have learnt from Ronaldinho at Barcelona!”

The beautiful game’s two most decisive, divisive players could meet in a mouthwatering quarterfinal. First though, Portugal must progress from a difficult group that contains Germany, Ghana and United States – the first two games of which will be played in Salvador and Manaus, notorious for their high temperatures and stifling humidity. 

“We don’t have the pressure because we are not favourites and that is a good thing,” Ronaldo said.

Yet they should surely be taken more seriously than they are. They have the world’s top player not only at his absolute peak but also astutely aware that, turning 30 next February, this is his best chance to leave an indelible mark on international football. Plus Fifa currently ranks Portugal as No3 in the world – their highest ever position – with only Spain and Germany ahead.

The reason they are relatively disregarded is that without one specific player they appear ordinary. Yet Portugal’s best finish at a World Cup came when they were dragged to the semifinals in 1966 by the exceptional talent of one player.The world's best player: Ronaldo won the Ballon d'Or for the second time in his career in January.

The legendary Eusebio scored nine goals, including a brace against Brazil and four in the quarterfinals. His side eventually fell 2-1 to England – the host nation and eventual winners – with Eusebio scoring his country’s only goal.

Resultantly, the benchmark and blueprint have been set. With the death of the Portuguese legend earlier this year, the memory of his achievements could prove inspirational for the nation’s latest luminary.“He was one of the most brilliant players in the world,” Ronaldo said. “I was sad especially because he was my friend; I worked with him for many years in the national team. He was a special man for me and for all the Portuguese people.”

Eusebio, Figo and now Ronaldo: Portugal are no strangers to producing wickedly consummate flair players. Yet none have secured a major trophy for the so-called “Brazilians of Europe”. This may be the best chance for a while, and Ronaldo knows it.

“To win a World Cup would be the crowning glory of my career,” said the player who has won four league titles in England and Spain, the Fifa Club World Cup, two Uefa Champions Leagues, several domestic cups and two Ballons d’Or.

While Portugal without Ronaldo are nothing special, with him they can beat anybody. They can never be discounted because they can always find a goal – or four. Never short on confidence, he will believe it, even if the bookmakers do not. This summer could be his zenith: Ronaldo’s World Cup.

Or, as the Brazilians would say: the Copa do Cristiano.