Cristiano Ronaldo looked towards the dugout and saw his number was up. His Portugal team were level with South Korea in their final group game and Ronaldo had been at fault for the South Koreans’ leveller. Now, after 65 minutes, André Silva was stood by the fourth official. He was Ronaldo’s replacement. The superstar—who is without a club after Manchester United sacked him for criticising the club—was off.
Ronaldo trudged off, the former great now a former player in this particular match. As he shuffled to his seat on the bench, he swore at the fact of having been substituted, and told someone to shut up. The Republic of Korea won the game in stoppage time. Perhaps Ronaldo was vindicated for his utter disgust at being replaced. Or maybe, just maybe, that was simply the barmy nature of smash-and-grab World Cup football.
For Ronaldo, it was just another addition to a long line of stories about his fall from grace to behavioral disgrace.
Ronaldo is a phenomenon. He was the skinny boy from the island of Madeira who tormented Manchester United in a pre-season friendly, convinced Sir Alex Ferguson to sign him, and then worked on his game diligently and obsessively to stamp the unnecessary skills out and dial his goal threat up.
His influence grew as he eventually became the best player from the best team in England. Then he became football’s most-expensive signing, taking his goalscoring to stratospheric levels, finetuning his body to resemble an artfully created evergreen machine rather than a mere mortal’s anatomy.
Ronaldo has scored 819 career goals in 1146 matches. He is the leading scorer in the history of the sport’s most famous club, Real Madrid. With 118 goals, he is the all-time top scorer in the history of international football and his record may never be broken. Ronaldo is a modern-day Galáctico. Perhaps the Galáctico. He is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the greatest footballers in history. He belongs in the same conversation as Pelé, Diego Maradona and his long-term rival Lionel Messi, who has driven Ronaldo to new levels as he yearned at his peak to dislodge Messi from his position as the world’s greatest player.
But Ronaldo’s obsession with himself and with his legacy are well-documented to the point of obsession by the media. Ronaldo has missed a trick. If his foresight were anywhere near as efficient as his right foot, he’d have applied a little economics here. There’s an economic principle called opportunity cost, which outlines the difference between what you gain and what you lose when comparing two options.
Ronaldo was one of United’s main men last term, but at age 37, his influence for both club and country is naturally declining. For Ronaldo, it seems there were two options over the last year. Either he could have accepted he is the autumn of his career now—and everything that comes with that—or he could have done what he has done: stropped and sulked and fought it.
Rightly or wrongly, how a sportsperson acts both in their playing career and after their playing career impacts their legacy in decades to come. Few English strikers can claim to have had the technical skill of Matt Le Tissier or Michael Owen. Yet both have lost respect from former admirers due to their beliefs and their words since retiring.
Ronaldo’s conduct is similarly distasteful. Forcing Manchester United—the club that gave him everything—to sack him because he couldn’t help but speak out is the sort of thing that is never brushed under the carpet and forgotten in a hurry. Neither is walking down the tunnel alone the other night, after Portugal had thrashed Switzerland 6-1 in possibly their greatest-ever World Cup performance.
Few of football’s immortals have been flawless characters and true gentlemen. Not Pelé, not Maradona, not even Messi. But Ronaldo has flirted dangerously close with being unlikeable. Admiration for CR7’s psychopathic hubris was always likely to wear off at some point. Add in his huffing and puffing and eye-rolling antics of the past couple of months, and you can bet your life we will never think quite as well as we did of Cristiano Ronaldo ever again.
He has decided to pull a tantrum every time anyone threatens to get in the way of his attempts to elongate his already glorious career. You can tell he’s been obsessively wondering whether he’s at the right club or whether he’ll be fit enough for the World Cup.
Well, now he’s not at any club at all. And if he is, it’s a club from Saudi Arabia that few have even heard of. And he’s not even starting for Portugal at his last World Cup—Gonçalo Ramos is instead. Ronaldo picked the wrong option. He is left with little chance of an untarnished legacy now. Less opportunity, more costs.