Cristiano Ronaldo embracing the weight of World Cup expectation
After just two games of the 2018 FIFA World Cup, Cristiano Ronaldo has rewritten the record books of European football history and appears set to shine above the shackled constraints of his talismanic rivals on the biggest stage of all.
Continuing to defy the natural ageing process, Ronaldo, 33, has matured like a fine wine and appears to be at the very peak of his power as he carries Portugal through another major tournament. An on and off the field catalyst to their UEFA EURO 2016 success, Ronaldo's character at this World Cup is already taking him to yet another level.
His hat-trick in the thrilling 3-3 draw with Spain made him the first player to score in eight consecutive major tournaments. His solitary goal in the 1-0 against Morocco was his 85th for his country and made him the highest-scoring international in European football history.
But these are mere personal achievements to add to the list of records Ronaldo has already claimed at club level.
For over a decade, Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have been in direct competition, and while their respective club achievements ensure the debate over who his the greatest will continue for years to come, it is their international contributions that will ultimately hold the casting vote. The World Cup is the competition that cannot be decided by the financial muscle of the modern game.
The World Cup has traditionally been a competition that will decide sporting immortality, and it is the stage that Ronaldo has already embraced this summer. Before the pre-match anthems against both Spain and Morocco, Ronaldo was pictured with a glint in his eye, a solid smile, holding the look of a man appreciating that this was the stage his work until now had been in preparation for.
Confident in his own ability, there is no show of fear, no concern about the level of expectancy his country places upon him. Ronaldo is Portugal, and it is his appreciation of this status that ensures he carries his team with him. He is not the only player at the tournament to hold such a privileged position, but he is the only one who can turn it to his advantage.
Compare Ronado's pre-match image with that of Messi for Argentina, or Neymar for Brazil, and you understand why it is the Portuguese talisman who holds the clear advantage. Messi cuts a serious and distant figure, desperate for the game to start. Neymar has the look of man-focused solely on his own performance, rather than what he can give to the collective Brazilian cause.
The shadow of Maradona
As well carrying the hopes of a nation, Messi plays in the shadow of Diego Maradona when he pulls on the blue and white shirt, and it is a shackle of which he will never be free. Their physical attributes, style of play and undoubted technical ability are uncannily similar, but their relevance to the nation they represent is in complete contrast.
While Maradona defined Argentinian culture, Messi left the country in his formative teenage years and was brought up in the protected confines of Barcelona. A symbol of Catalonia, he will never be accepted by Argentina in the same way as Maradona is revered, and even World Cup glory will not catapult him beyond the status of the man he serves only to emulate.
Neymar understands the importance of the World Cup to the people of Brazil, and while he is seen as the potential difference between success and failure, he does not have the character to take hold of his team at such a tournament and decide their fortune in the same way that Ronaldo can with Portugal. But there are few who can perform under the pressures of such a demanding football nation.
Dedication to a nation
Portugal won EURO 2016 against the odds, and alongside Ronaldo, manager Fernando Santos has the experience to know of what it takes to win such a tournament. There is no expectancy from their nation, but there is a determination from within for Ronaldo to prove that he is the greatest of all time. The World Cup is the trophy missing from his glittering collection, but it is also the defining one.
There is a pressure on Ronaldo that comes from inside the man himself, and how he uses it to his own advantage is testament to his complex and ambitious character. His achievements to date provide the belief that anything is possible, and he will not see the limitations in this Portugal team as a negative factor in achieving the ultimate prize.
Ronaldo for Portugal is different to Ronaldo for Real Madrid. His passion for his country and his humble origins mean that international success is for the entire nation as much as it is for him personally, but it is the understanding of his position within the Portuguese national team that changes his approach to give everything for the team regardless.
Real Madrid is a vehicle to silverware for players like Ronaldo, but international football remains untouched by financial influence, and it is the humility of adapting to the limitations of his team that also sets him apart from the other headline names of this World Cup. Success is unlikely, but there will be no leading player with as much desire to achieve World Cup utopia in Russia than Ronaldo.