It may say something about Fifa’s fondness for the rich and famous that the man-of-the-match award in this World Cup tends to go to the player with the greatest profile, not the one who produced the finest display in the preceding 90 minutes. Kevin De Bruyne was utterly bemused to find himself the recipient when Belgium beat Canada. Gareth Bale got the prize for a penalty against the United States, Luka Modric perhaps for being Luka Modric. But none is as rich and famous as Cristiano Ronaldo.
His status affords certain privileges, perhaps including winning and scoring a spot-kick that, as Mohammed Salisu appeared to win the ball, the Ghana manager Otto Addo deemed “a special gift from the referee”. But with his goal rendering him the governing body’s choice as officially the outstanding player in Portugal’s 3-2 victory, Ronaldo was summoned to speak.
The last time many had heard from him was during the explosive interview with Piers Morgan that prompted Manchester United to release him: no pay-off, no transfer fee, no fond farewell. It was an ignominious end. In effect, he is the sacked superstar, the unwanted incomparable, the legend who lost his job because he was a loose cannon. But in his first utterance as an out-of-work footballer, Ronaldo held his tongue.
“It was a week that finished this chapter,” he said. “This chapter is closed.” And with that, he got up and left, 12 words of a two-minutes-and-12-seconds press conference devoted to his departure. It was scarcely as dramatic as the end of his time at Old Trafford, but it was abrupt. Perhaps Ronaldo did not want to revisit a saga that has left him with a bruised ego and a need to find an alternative employer.
It was nevertheless entirely in keeping with Ronaldo’s insatiable quest for personal glory that a low was followed by a historic high. His list of records was lengthy enough. Now that controversial spot-kick gave him another. “This was a beautiful moment: my fifth World Cup, also a [joint-]world record,” Ronaldo noted. “The first player in five World Cups to score. That makes me proud.”
He was already Portugal’s youngest scorer in a World Cup. Now he is their oldest as well. The first came in a side with Luis Figo, the most recent in a team with Joao Felix. He has spanned eras and defined them, scoring for so long that some who idolised him are now teammates, if not necessarily peers. “He was one of the players I looked at when I was a kid,” said Bruno Fernandes. “It was a dream come true to play with him in the national team and in the club also, and that is something amazing.” There is something astonishing that Ronaldo has scored in World Cups at 21, 25, 29, 33 and 37. He has also scored in European Championships at 19, 23, 27, 31 and 36. It amounts to a 10-tournament streak. Ronaldo has taken relentlessness to new levels.
"One of the best players ever,” said his manager, Fernando Santos. “I think Cristiano is a phenomenon and a legend like many others who have come before him. In 50 years’ time we’ll still be talking about him.” Which, as Pele remains a constant in the conversation 52 years after his last World Cup game, seems a safe assertion.
Ronaldo’s place in history is increasingly secure. It is position now that has been more contentious: Erik ten Hag concluded he did not belong in his strongest side; Santos seems unlikely to concur, though there is a legitimate argument that Portugal’s chances of winning the World Cup improve if they build around their phalanx of younger attackers. Fernandes hinted at Ronaldo’s insecurities by arguing he is fuelled by the chance to prove his growing band of critics wrong.
“I think the he likes to work under that criticism from everyone so I pray all of you to keep doing that, because he gets the best of himself when you guys do that,” said the Portuguese that United were rather keener to keep.
Ronaldo’s outburst accounts for his current situation of lingering between jobs. Portugal’s great diplomat still plies his trade on the other side of Manchester. “I support his decision in terms of, it’s his decision,” said Bernardo Silva. “He’s my teammate in Portugal; if he’s happy, we’re happy.”
The Manchester City playmaker deflected questions with the deftness he passes the ball. Pushing 38, Ronaldo evidently does not feel finished, even if a search for a new employer of the stature he wants could be chastening. Can he play on? “Yes, I think so,” said Silva. “It depends on what he wants. I don’t know what he wants for his life. That’s his decision. That’s the decision of whoever it is who offers him a contract. We’ll see what happens.”
Santos, meanwhile, delivered a dry one-liner to avoid discussing Ronaldo’s time at United again.
“You were talking about Cristiano Ronaldo’s club,” he said. “He doesn’t have a club anymore.”