Portugal goes to the World Cup in Brazil with a far from vintage side, but it does contain one of the greatest players to have ever kicked a ball. When Cristiano Ronaldo first came to prominence at Manchester United in 2003, there were raised eyebrows. His natural ability was obvious, but Ronaldo’s tendency to “show pony” his way around the pitch with superfluous step-overs showed he had a long way to go to live up to the name adopted by the the great Brazilian. The “original” Ronaldo remains one of the greatest strikers the game has ever seen. Now, when the name Ronaldo comes up in conversation, it is almost as if the former Barcelona, Internazionale, Real Madrid and AC Milan never played. It is all about the current Real Madrid man. However, World Cup 2014 will provide the Portuguese with his biggest challenge.
While Real Madrid’s pool of players are capable of supporting Ronaldo, therein lies a problem for the Portugal national team. Even though Real Madrid teammate Pepe can win the ball and Fábio Coentrão can offer support on the flank, there is very little else for the Portugal fans to pin their hopes on. A team of hard-working and talented players, yes. A team of match-winners, most definitely not.
Although it could be argued that Portugal have often relied on one or two big names over the years, such as Paulo Futre in the 80s and early 90s and Luis Figo just a few years later, the national side has always had a host of players who can carry out the dirty work and chip in with the odd goal. This Portugal side lacks the strength in depth to mount a serious challenge in Brazil. The fact the team had to beat an average Sweden in the playoffs – another side reliant on one player, Zlatan Ibrahimović – in order to reach the finals is a case in point. Ronaldo therefore goes into the tournament facing his biggest challenge.
Scoring goals for fun in one of the best club side’s in the world is one thing, but many a soccer purist factors in a player’s international record when they talk about the greatest players of all time. Ronaldo’s return of 49 goals in 110 matches for Portugal is good, considering he is not an out-and-out striker. Now at the age of 28, the chances of him winning a major tournament has he approaches his twilight years are fading. Carrying a nation through to the World Cup in Brazil in a qualifying group featuring minnows Azerbaijan, Israel, Luxembourg and Northern Ireland (Russia won the group) is one thing. When Portugal goes to the World Cup, Germany, Ghana and the United States await. While Germany is expected to sail through with Portugal coming a close second, one bad result for the latter against either Ghana or the United States could see Ronaldo and his teammates praying other results go their way.
While Ronaldo has nothing to prove for either club or country, he will want to end his distinguished career with a big international trophy to his name. For that reason, he will take his limited side to Brazil, facing the biggest challenge of his career.
World Cup Preview is a daily series providing commentary and analysis of the teams and players participating in this year’s World Cup in Brazil.
Commentary by Robert Shepherd