When Crisitiano Ronaldo made his World Cup debut, Moroccan midfielder Azzedine Ounahi had just turned six. Joao Ricardo, the Angolan goalkeeper Portugal faced that day, is now 52 years old. In his recent public appearances Wayne Rooney, victim of a Ronaldo goal in the quarter-finals, looks even older.
“Age comes to all of us,” an optimistic Rooney said recently when asked to respond to a few shadows thrown into his strop enabled by Ronaldo’s Piers Morgan. After Portugal’s exit from this World Cup, 16 years and four tournaments later for Ronaldo, Rooney’s words summed up his former teammate’s plight.
Against Morocco, Ronaldo was called up from the new home he struggles to settle in: the bench. His presence equaled Bader Al-Mutawa’s 196 international caps for Kuwait. There may not be another for a player whose once-invincible touch in front of goal has deserted him. He’s taken the idea of raging against the dying light literally, but he looks desperately out of shape. Now he is also out of time.
It must irritate to see Lionel Messi praised for his ingenious energy saving when Ronaldo is pilloried for perceived laziness. It’s not quite right. I saw him up close in the group stage against Poland, when he played as something of a free-field target, drifting to offer his still immense physical prowess to knock down high balls and hold shots.
It was a selfless enough performance, but this is a role that really doesn’t exist for any other player in world football, and for good reason. When he was removed, a new impetus to his team’s attack could not miss.
That suspicion was confirmed in the round of 16, when Ronaldo was eliminated and Portugal tore apart competent Switzerland. They were accommodating with the space for Ronaldo’s team, but Morocco didn’t give it to them. Every time he received the ball, Yahia Attiat-Allah came in to control his run, or Achraf Dari to get the right side to put out any danger.
This is the most brutal stage for the aging footballers, with the weight of the trophy and its rarity sure to come into sharper focus with each passing staging. Yet as recently as last season, there were moments when Ronaldo seemed to be stretching the benchmarks of success for veteran footballers. Why shouldn’t we have a Tom Brady figure in non-American football?
This question was answered by Ronaldo’s surprising impotence, not only in this match but throughout the tournament. He’s no longer able to significantly influence a high-level game, he can barely cause a scene.
Inevitably there was a chance. Freed by a through ball, Ronaldo had a clear view of goal and enough time to choose his place. His shot didn’t go straight on Bono, keeper of Morocco’s unforgettable fire, but close enough for a comfortable save.
Long before this Portugal was in a panic and none of it was Ronaldo’s fault. Bruno Fernandes passed the ball to nothing across the touchline and immediately started clapping enthusiastically, as if to say ‘no change of plans, keep doing what we’re doing, don’t get sucked into this’.
Next was a poor free-kick routine instigated by Fernandes 40 yards from goal, a botched one-two attempt which gave up the territory. Perhaps we can now understand why Ronaldo took so many of these, even though most were blasted against the wall?
After falling behind, Portugal were unlucky, then wasteful and finally clueless in the face of the most stubborn defense in the tournament. Such was Morocco’s brilliance, there was little shock when they watched the match with 10 men.
For Ronaldo, ruthlessly teased in less enlightened times, there were no tears on the pitch. Instead he waited until he was in the tunnel, an area once considered a safe space for emotional players. Unfortunately the never ending invasion of television means that there are also very high definition cameras, so the misery of him has been captured and broadcast to the world.
For once, though, the story wasn’t about him. Morocco are the first African semi-finalists of this tournament and Portugal have their own version of England v Iceland in 2016, a collective brain freeze that will haunt all involved. Perennial protagonist Ronaldo’s last act on this stage is a footnote. As much as the end of his World Cup career hurts, this could be the most painful thing of all.