If Ronaldo has problems with the idea of retiring from football, I sympathize
The last few days have been tough for Cristiano Ronaldo. For those who just want to play football forever, aging can be hard to accept.
Obviously, this is another sign of me going soft in my old age, but I’m starting to have some empathy for Cristiano Ronaldo. I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say it’s blossoming into full sympathy yet – stick a pin in it – but after watching the narrative of Portugal’s win over Switzerland, it’s been hard to avoid this clumsy look allegory for the passage of time.
I was lucky that the end of my own time playing football was a fixed dividing line that I crossed and never looked back on with any regrets. I had started to feel increasing stiffness in my legs after games towards the end of last season, although at 32 I hoped to last a few more years.
But by the end of the first practice game of the following season, it felt like the inside of my knees had been hacked out and replaced by cricket balls with needles sticking out of them. The next morning I walked as if on stilts. i had had osgood-schlätter disease as a teenager and had played with a couple of people who had destroyed their ACLs, and consequently their lives. I had broken my leg as a player and it had cost me my job; I didn’t take any more chances.
I didn’t make a profit from football and it has never been all-consuming for me. It didn’t make me hugely rich and one of the most recognizable faces on the planet, while it offered me levels of excitement that are frankly unimaginable to most of us proles. It was never all I knew. But what does that post-game period—otherwise known as “the rest of your life”—look like when this one thing is pretty much all you’ve done for as long as you can remember?
I’m not saying that Cristiano Ronaldo seems to be having trouble coming to terms with the end of his career, but I am saying that I would understand if he was. He wouldn’t be the first, and he won’t be the last. For most players, football is all they have done since they were little. At the level he’s played at, it’s a bubble, usually protected from the vagaries and challenges of the outside world by its vast wealth. The temptation to just think that this just has to go on forever must be overwhelmingly tempting.
And in this case, it’s not just the fact that all this is happening; it’s also the way it dissolves. The rumor that he would not start against Switzerland had started a day earlier, but the formal confirmation came during the match between Morocco and Spain, blowing up social media.
Cristiano Ronaldo may be a man well used to having a camera shoved in his face, but his arrival at the stadium for the match was accompanied by what looked like even more than ever. Things only seemed to get more extreme as the teams took to the field before kick-off, with something approaching a scrum emerging around the substitutes’ bench as photographers scrambled to capture The Sadness In His Eyes for our entertainment. At one point, there seemed to be more interest in him than in his team for national anthem attention. In most respects this is not surprising, but it still made for a jarring juxtaposition.
And then the game begins. The guy they brought in to replace you scores a delightful hat-trick on his first full appearance. Even Pepe, the only guy on the team older than you (one of eight in the whole tournament), manages to get on the scoresheet. With the team leading 5-1 and with 17 minutes remaining, you come on as a substitute. It is not clear if this is a lap of honor or not. It maybe be.
You make one run, but you’re a couple of meters offside. You go ahead and finish it anyway. Still have it. The audience, which seems to be packed with your fans rather than the two nations taking part roar their approval anyway. At the final whistle, your team has performed the best of any team in this tournament, and one or two commentators have noted that this run of form coincides with your omission from the starting XI. You must look happy when the team celebrates a historic victory.
Out of nowhere, Portugal are being talked about as if they could go far in this World Cup. It seems unlikely that Ronaldo will be back in the starting XI, but with his level of celebrity it is always a possibility. After all, when something similar happened earlier this season at Manchester United, he was back in the team within days. He was captain within weeks.
But for Portugal coach Fernando Santos, the situation is very different from what happened at Manchester United. He is three games away from the world’s best prize, and such an opportunity may never present itself again. Confidence must now flow through the team that played against Switzerland like a tsunami. It would surely be a dereliction of duty for Santos to do anything but select the same strikers for the next game.
How would it feel for Cristiano Ronaldo to sit on the bench for an entire World Cup final? Would he make a cameo appearance? What if they won? Would he lift the trophy? How would that feel? Much is made of Cristiano Ronaldo’s lack of self-awareness. At points like this, it feels like it would be a relief if he doesn’t have any.
Cristiano Ronaldo is not easy to like. It’s pretty common knowledge. But it should be recognized that all this comes at the end of a terrible year for him which has not been limited to football and you don’t have to as someone to empathize with them in an instant. And I want to be clear that I am not claiming that I am not claiming any moral high ground here. I hooted along in derision along with everyone else. After all, and not even for the first time this seasonmuch of this is too self-inflicted because of his own behavior.
In a couple of weeks it will all be over, for better or for worse. A retirement season could await in Saudi Arabia, a hotbed of Ronaldo fanboyism, although he currently denies anything is a done deal. It might be good for him to accept the offer. The money will start flowing into his bank account again and the tribute will return. He will probably score a few more goals as well. It is knowing this probable event that prevents me from feeling much sympathy for him. If that lack of self-awareness is real, he’s fine.
But the aging process will continue. Money can delay that, but not to the extent that it can indefinitely prolong the kind of professional soccer career that Cristiano Ronaldo wants. His playing career ends because playing careers always do. All the money in the world can only delay or postpone the aging process. And speaking as someone who is already more than 12 years below him – and in so much worse physical condition than him that we might be considered a different species from each other – I can assure him that it doesn’t get any easier from here.