SOCHI, RUSSIA — That chin-stroking celebration? It’s a reference to a goat. Or, rather a G.O.A.T.: Greatest Of All Time. And while some will rightly debate his status in the farmyard, nights like these remind you that his place in the conversation ought not be doubted.
Sergio Ramos had said it a little over 24 hours earlier, when asked how he would stop Cristiano Ronaldo. “I don’t know… I just hope he doesn’t have one of his best games against us.”
Ramos’ prophecy did not come to pass. This was Ronaldo’s best game — at least at a World Cup — and in some ways one of his most important, because it neatly marked yet another evolution in a career that has seen him adapt and mutate with only slightly less regularity than Lady Gaga. Over his career he’s gone from ethereal fleet-footed winger who never shot on goal, to all-over-the-pitch goalscorer, to power-house out wide, to more-or-less traditional center forward, to whatever you call what Fernando Santos had designed for him in Sochi.
We’ve seen his feats with Real Madrid and before that, with Manchester United. But needless to say, it’s one thing to do it with a constellation of a supporting cast. It’s quite another to load a team stuck between generations like this one on your back against one of the very best sides in the world.
Nominally, he was one of two central strikers in a 4-4-2, though that’s a little bit like saying Bruce Springsteen is a vocalist and guitarist in the E Street Band. Santos, the man charged with giving him a canvas and paint — Cristiano brings his own brush — lined up the tricky Goncalo Guedes as his foil. More at home on the wing, Guedes’ job was to offer a threat behind his star teammate and criss-cross between Gerard Pique and Ramos, creating space for Ronaldo and, at the same time, dropping back into midfield to ensure that William Carvalho and Joao Moutinho weren’t outmanned by Spain’s central trio.
No pressure there, then.
“I think Guedes and Cristiano are complementary,” said Santos. “[Guedes] had two good chances to score, he set up one of the goals, he helped the midfield, he helped Cristiano.”
But really, it was always going to be about turning scraps into sustenance. Portugal knew that Spain would have most of the ball; all they could do was wait for the gaps, hope to spot them before they close and throw themselves into them as best they could. In that sense, Ronaldo has few peers.
“At this level, the devil is in the details,” said Spain boss Fernando Hierro. “And sometimes he makes you pay.” Whether he was referring to Satan himself or to Ronaldo was unclear.
Three minutes in, Ronaldo accelerated into the box and produced a step-over that was just enough for Nacho to leave a dangling leg and give the referee no choice to award a penalty. You wondered how many times Ronaldo had attempted that against Nacho in the eight years that they’ve played and trained together at Real Madrid. A bit like defenders facing Garrincha a few generations ago, they knew what was coming but still couldn’t halt themselves from falling for it.
Ronaldo’s second goal came after Diego Costa’s Rhino-on-the-loose-meets-Rudolf-Nureyev-dancing-feet equalizer. It was just before half-time and, of course, owed a lot to David De Gea, who ended up pawing the ball into his own net.
Again, devils and details. But it wasn’t just De Gea’s uncharacteristic error; it was the way Ronaldo thundered up the pitch when Pepe booted it forward from the back, sniffing, anticipating and sensing that Guedes, who received the clearance, would find a way to lay it off. When it came, Ronaldo was ready and while ordinarily De Gea saves that holding two ice cream cones and wearing a bucket on his head, in this case he did not. Like the old maxim says: if you don’t shoot, you don’t score, but you have to be in the right spot to even think of shooting. And Ronaldo was.
Spain were unfazed. All that talk about unity wasn’t just hot air. They rallied around their keeper and righted the ship at the start of the second half, equalizing with Costa and then taking the lead with a magnificent Nacho volley: you could only be happy for him given the earlier penalty incident. In fact, they could have even added to it.
Two minutes from time, Portugal were awarded a free-kick after a Gerard Pique foul and it was the sort of scene we’ve seen umpteen times before. Ronaldo waddled back, got into his wide stance and unleashed a vicious strike, as if he wanted to punish the ball for opening all seven seals and let loose plagues of pestilence, famine and locusts all at once.
Except this time, he didn’t. This time, his run-up was more about grace than power and he stroked an elegant parabola over the wall and into De Gea’s top corner. (In fact, it was rather reminiscent of the free kicks the other Liga-based G.O.A.T. candidate likes to hit.) The Spain keeper, flat-footed, could only look on in horror.
Details… once more.
“When you face a player like Cristiano these things can happen,” said Hierro. “We could have been 4-2 up, maybe more, we had the ball for a long time, but then there’s just that one moment, that tiny detail and when your opponent has Cristiano, they’re fortunate because they capitalize on it.”
Break it down and the old cliche about the mind being the most powerful weapon applies. Most professionals (and many amateurs) could have scored Ronaldo’s first two goals in technical terms. Few would have been in the right place at the right time and done the right things to make them happen.
“I think more important than his physical form right now is his mental form,” said Santos. “His technique is great, of course, but that doesn’t change. But what you are seeing is a man with incredible mental endurance, an incredible mind. He was the one, even before the goal, who kept us in the game when were were 3-2 down.”
And so it came to pass that on a muggy night on the banks of the Black Sea, Ronaldo scored as many goals in 90 minutes as he had scored in his previous 13 World Cup appearances. Along the way, he pulled level with the legendary Ferenc Puskas as the second most prolific international goalscorer of all-time with 84 goals. He also joined Uwe Seeler, Pele and Miroslav Klose as the only players to score in four different World Cups.
“I’m very happy, but most important is what the team achieved,” said Ronaldo after the match. “We faced the favorites for the World Cup, we took the lead twice and we almost won. In the end, I think it was a fair result.”
Outwardly, as he offered up this bland assessment of his achievement, he looked earnest. Inwardly, you imagine, he was stroking his chin. He knew what he had done.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.