World Cup 2018: Cristiano Ronaldo 1 - 0 Lionel Messi
Cristiano Ronaldo, bloody 'ell.
Before that moment, he'd taken 44 freekicks in international competition and scored none of them. Zero. His 44th had come a half-hour or so earlier as he belted a horrendous ball into the Black Sea from an impossible angle.
We shook our heads. Why does he do this? Why doesn't he let someone else take it? Bernardo Silva, Joao Moutinho, Ricardo Quaresma even -- surely there are safer bets in the Portuguese camp, we thought.
If he listened to the statistics, he wouldn't have taken that 45th freekick. If he listened to Rafa Benitez (who reportedly tried to talk him out of taking freekicks the way he did), to the commentators, to the experts, to the world, to us... he wouldn't have.
But Cristiano Ronaldo didn't get here by listening to what other people have had to say about him. He's built a career, a life, around asking naysayers to f*** right off.
David De Gea, the best goalkeeper on the planet - one mistake doth change nothing - anticipating the ball to come to his near post, or crash into the wall, stood a shade closer to his near post than he normally would have. A couple of inches too far to his right. That was enough.
It's been a decade since Ronaldo left David James looking like he'd seen a ghost with that peach of a knuckleball and after ten years of smacking balls into orbit trying to recreate it, there really was no reason to believe he'd trouble De Gea.
De Gea could do nothing.
51st career hattrick sealed, Ronaldo sprinted to the corner pointing at his chest. "Me. Me. me. I've got this"
Leo Messi, bloody 'ell
When Hörður Björgvin Magnússon clattered into him, the world stopped. And waited. Up until that moment, Iceland had shut Argentina out expertly, groups of three hounding Messi at every turn -- but he'd managed to wriggle himself free just when he seemed least likely to, and Magnusson had temporarily lost his head. Enough. Penalty.
As he stood there, head bowed, there was something different about him. Like he couldn't bear to lift his head for want of an invisible load on his shoulders. Like he didn't believe.
It was almost inevitable that he hit it almost straight at Hannes Þór Halldórsson. He turned on the spot, shoulders hunched, head burrowed within his bosom. He really couldn't believe it. And then he started getting frustrated.
Why wasn't Argentina more like Barcelona? It's the easy way out, isn't it? Watching him play, we started asking ourselves -- why hadn't Sergio Aguero made that typical Suarez run which allows frees up space for Messi, why hadn't Ever Banega played it back immediately a la Iniesta, why hadn't Nicolas Tagliafico channeled his inner Jordi Alba and laid it back to him at the edge of the box?
Lionel Messi's tried to ignore the crushing expectation of a nation ever since he can remember. After three major tournament final failures, an absolutely majestic qualifying campaign had helped keep it at bay (his brilliance shining through brighter than ever through the sheer dullness of the rest of Argentina's play) but as with any aspect in life, the better you perform, the better you are expected to continue to perform. After what he did in qualifying he was expected to seize this World Cup by the scruff of its neck.
It's a vicious cycle that he's handled with the will of a champion, a burden he's borne with nary a complaint escaping his lips. Today, he couldn't.
Today, he looked a beaten man.
For a man whose career has been given a special burnish by the sheer magnitude of his numbers, it's today's that will haunt him most. 11. 0. 11 shots, the most he's ever attempted at this stage, 0 goals.
Messi trudged off, head buried in that beautiful black away jersey.
It's the greatest sporting rivalry on the planet. Messi vs Ronaldo. Ronaldo vs Messi. And for a decade the narrative has remained the same.
Ronaldo, the hubristic bastard, the lone champion, the one who values his own success more than his team's against Messi, the humble winner, the one who values team above all else. Ronaldo, the man who needs his words to speak as loud as his actions, Messi, the man who hardly utters anything. For Real Madrid and Barcelona, neither have done anything that would prove otherwise. So the narrative's been set in stone.
And we make the mistake of transposing the same to their national team set-ups... for doubt not, it is a mistake.
Ronaldo the captain of Portugal is a very different animal from Ronaldo the goalmonger of Real Madrid. Loud, proud, a leader who knows how to get the best out of his troops. Whether it's grabbing games by the scruff of its neck when the team needs him the most (Portugal's 2014 WC qualifier vs Sweden, the match yesterday) he's endured pressure that would have crushed most mortals and come out unscathed. Hell, pressure seems to make him a better player.
And for Portugal, he is rarely the self-obsessed twat he often is at the Bernabeu. After all, representing, and leading, Portugal isn't a mere job.
Messi the captain of Argentina is the exact opposite. This is not his fault. It is who he is, el mudo as the Barca academy graduates dubbed the shy, quiet, little genius in their dressing room. He leads by mere presence, unable to muster up the bronca that have marked Argentina's greatest leaders, the almost physically tangible charisma of a Diego Maradona, and this inability of his to adapt, this inability of his nation to accept him for who he is, has taken its toll.
He's broken down in tears, he's grown a beard -- a dog trying to become the wolf the village needs him to be -- he's retired, he's come back. He seemed to have changed his personality but under some of the most acute pressure the footballing world has known, he's crumbled. Argentina's starting to look more like a job he has to get done than anything else now. Like winning the World Cup is a task he just wants to get over with, so that he can escape the confines of a maniacal, sadistic employer. It's becoming painful to watch.
As he walked off alone, head bowed as ever, eyes on his boots, the cameras panned out to Maradona - cigar in hand - pumping his chest and yelling out "Vamos, Vamos, Vamos" the champion the whole of Argentina yearns their current iteration to be, a constant reminder that for his compatriots, there really is the only yardstick for measuring success. Victory with Argentina.
And that's never looked a more impossible task than now.
At the end of the day, though, both Portugal and Argentina have 1 point -- and as good as Ronaldo was, or as poor as Messi was, this is just the first round. What happens over the next few weeks will define the legacy of this most astounding rivalry, and the individual legacies of two of the greatest Champions the world has ever seen.
Messi has the power to rewrite his own nation's destiny, football and life intertwined like almost nowhere else. Ronaldo has the power to make Portugal believe in itself again.
As arguably the grandest stage for this rivalry that has defined our times, Russia 2018 is going to be an absolute cracker.