As the World Cup is fast approaching, there’s one man that the Portuguese national team will be looking up to. Obviously, the name is their talisman and captain Cristiano Ronaldo.
The veteran has been in the squad for the past 15 years after earning his first senior cap on August 20, 2003 in a friendly match against Kazakhstan. Before getting that call-up, the teenager had represented his country at all youth levels at the exception of the u-15 level. His 18 goals in 34 national youth team appearances did not go unnoticed.
Since experiencing his first major tournament at Euro 2004, Cristiano Ronaldo has evolved into Luis Figo’s successor — carrying the Seleccao on his shoulders in qualification campaigns and breaking records. This World Cup in Russia may not be Ronaldo’s last international football finals. He probably has two or more major competitions ahead of him; one of those being the maiden edition of the UEFA Nations League.
The 33-year-old’s aspiration to stretch his successful career is huge. Back in 2016, the following statement he made captured his evergreen spirit:
“I’m super happy to have won La Undecima and now I’m thinking about the Euros. We want to give great joy to Portugal by winning it, which is something the Portuguese people deserve.
“I’m going to retire at Madrid when I’m over 40. I’m very happy here and I work hard to achieve that.”
At Real Madrid, Ronaldo is being taken care of well to leverage his fitness and balance his duties for both club and country. It is unlike the superstar forward to miss over 10 league matches in a campaign. However, since the start of the season, Cristiano has set a smart eye on Summer 2018.
This FIFA World Cup will be paramount, two years after lifting the 2016 European Championship in France, and one year after guiding Portugal to the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup semis. To be frank, Madeira’s greatest son has little to be happy about when looking back at his last two World Cup campaigns.
From finishing fourth in Germany 2006, Ronaldo and Portugal’s affair with the globe’s biggest sports tournament has been a rather sour story in subsequent years. They were eliminated by Iberian rivals Spain in the Last 16 of the 2010 FIFA World Cup and humiliated by a group stage exit in Brazil 2014. So is Russia 2018 the moment and platform for CR7 to put some respect on his nation’s name at the World Cup?
There are several other strong teams at the tournament and although Portugal have maintained their fourth position in the May 2018 FIFA Ranking, they do not enter the World Cup as one of the five favorites to lift the golden prize. Brazil, Argentina, Spain, France, and reigning champions Germany are arguably more worthy of this tag.
However, with Cristiano Ronaldo, there are pros in being underrated. This man loves to respond on the pitch. Failure also strengthens his desire to succeed and empowers him to break curses. Should he conquer the FIFA World Cup in Russia, it will be the icing on the cake of his illustrious career. It would also put him another step ahead of his arch-rival, Lionel Messi, who has yet to win a single trophy with the senior national team of Argentina despite featuring in three Copa America finals and one World Cup final.
The figures surrounding Ronaldo’s career as a national team player are enviable. The captain, who will miss this month’s Portugal vs Tunisia game due to his involvement in the UEFA Champions League final two days prior to the friendly, is his country’s all-time topscorer with 81 goals in 149 games. He sits ahead of second-placed Pauleta who netted 47 goals in his 88 appearances for the Seleccao. No active Portuguese player comes close to surpassing Ronaldo’s goals record for the little nation.
Ronaldo is also just one goal away from stretching his unique record of goals scored in eight consecutive tournaments. He could make that nine at the 2018 FIFA World Cup after finding the net in all his four European Championship campaigns (2004, 2008, 2012, 2016), all previous three World Cups (2006, 2010, 2014) and at the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup.
At Russia 2018, his individual performance will come under scrutiny but what will weight most is the influence of his leadership and his ability to trigger the right results for Portugal because playing ugly and winning ugly is more valuable than amassing uncountable dribbles only to crash out early. While Ronaldo does not need a FIFA World Cup to be recognized as an alien, he should be aware that he needs a positive outcome this summer to defend his dearest individual trophy: the Ballon d’Or.
If on paper the European champions’ chances may look dim, the reality is different at a mental level. Nobody gave Fernando Santos’ men a chance at Euro 2016; yet they did it. And now, the hunger of Cristiano Ronaldo to finally write a beautiful World Cup chapter in his career as Portugal captain, while his body can still “take it”, might be just enough fuel to help him win his case for glory in Russia.