Few can relate to the physical nature and sporting achievements of Cristiano Ronaldo. Yet, everyone experiences aging.
Anyone who enters their 30s suffers from the depressing realities that coincide with maturity. For some, a back starts to go out. Or, one knee becomes the good knee, the other is a little dodgy. One Sunday league game can make one feel like they went up against Mike Tyson in a 12-round bout.
Cristiano Ronaldo is 37 years old. He has been playing football at the highest level for 20 years. His appearances total surpasses 1,100, netting over 800 goals for club and country. In that time, he picked up 32 major trophies and five Ballon d’Ors.
Quite simply, he has a legitimate claim to being the greatest player in the history of the game.
His longevity has been incredible. Ronaldo’s long obsession with perfection makes him completely dedicate his life to gaining any kind of physical advantage he can. That is training, conditioning, nutrition, recovery or anything else. The Portuguese served as the most important player on his team at Real Madrid, Juventus and even Manchester United last season. He always wants to extend that goal record of his, desiring to play each minute of each game.
Past greats do not come close to maintaining Ronaldo’s level of performance into the twilight of careers. Francesco Totti was still playing for AS Roma at 39 years of age, but managed only 15 appearances in all competitions in 2015/16. Raul departed Real Madrid to join Schalke aged 33. Kaka wound down his playing days in MLS, leaving AC Milan after a disappointing return at 31 years old. The trend is apparent. Reduce playing time in order to remain at a top-level European club, or drop down a level in their early 30’s.
Ronaldo’s game always relied heavily on his power and athleticism. As recently as 2019, CR7 measured jumps as high as 8 feet. His muscular physique made him a ferocious opponent for any defender. Plus, his pace at his peak was comparable to an Olympic-level sprinter. His dedication and professionalism saw him maximize his precocious talent. He continues to look like he has been carved out of stone.
The decline of Cristiano Ronaldo
This season, though, is the first time Ronaldo has found himself on the sidelines on a consistent basis. Given his unrivalled pedigree, he clearly thinks this is unjustified. Stomping off down the tunnel after refusing to come on as a late substitute against Tottenham was the latest sign of his frustration, and petulance.
However, not many observers argue Cristiano deserves to be an automatic starter in this Manchester United side. Statistics reinforce his incompatibility with a coaching ethos that demands a coherent pressing style. The attacking quartet must move in symmetry, complimenting an overall game plan. Ronaldo doesn’t adhere to this style. In fact, he never has. He has always been a player who gets accommodated because he was world class, and worthy of being the focal point for any team in the world. The difference in style amplifies the decline of Cristiano Ronaldo.
Whilst he remains an impressive physical specimen, he finally appears to have succumbed to the inevitability of age. He no longer possesses that blistering turn of pace that was so vital to his game. The Premier League’s all-time record goal scorer, Alan Shearer, discussed Ronaldo with The Athletic:
“Time is the one opponent you can never beat. For any elite athlete, this moment is very difficult to accept. It’s horrible, really horrible, wanting to do something and being urged to do it by your brain, while realising that your body can’t get there any more.”
Reluctance to concede to age
Cristiano Ronaldo is obviously unwilling to accept that this moment of decline has arrived. The difficulty is, his coach knows it, and fans can see it. The moment has come a lot later for him than for other professionals, even including the finest of their generation. This does not render Ronaldo ineffective by any means, but it does mean he has reached a crossroads in his career which requires careful navigation, and adaptation.
Ronaldo has a mindset which is difficult to relate to and is likely the key reason that he will go down as an all-time great. In 2021, Ronaldo said “I know that if I set my mind to something, even if people are saying I can’t do it, I will achieve it. I see myself as the best footballer in the world. If you don’t believe you are the best, you will never achieve all that you are capable of.” Not the mindset of a player who will accept a bit-part role.
His desire remains undiminished, but this has led to him playing with a desperation we haven’t seen before. He is snatching at chances, cutting an increasingly exasperated figure, and often has not even been positioning himself as a central striker. Speaking to RSNG last year, he said “Sometimes in matches when we are losing you want to do everything – you want to go to every part of the pitch to get the ball and try to do it all yourself.”
This rings true for the games he has started in the Europa League against Sherriff Tiraspol of Moldova, and Omonia Nicosia of Cyprus. This is a competition he does not want to be playing in, so it must be incomprehensible to him that he has struggled in all four fixtures against these teams. The sight of him looking up to the heavens, screaming with exasperation has become a familiar one. His Messiah complex can often lead to him taking up deeper positions and attempting increasingly unlikely shots at goal in order to try and rescue the team, along with his ego.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s identity is tied up with being the best player in the world, playing for the world’s most successful teams. He has previously stated he believes he can play until he is 41, and that “I only want to play to the point where I can finish at the top.”
It is difficult to think and act rationally when having a crisis of identity. The current situation is unprecedented for the Portugal captain, and on the eve of the World Cup. His rage at not being selected is logical to him and his unique mentality, and so a repetition of these petulant behaviors and anxious performances are almost inevitable. Given the financial package required to acquire Ronaldo, a move to an elite club seems unlikely. His choice may be to move further down the football pyramid, move to MLS, or attempt to embrace a new role as an impact substitute at Manchester United. Unfortunately, neither of the options will seem appealing to Cristiano Ronaldo, furthering the existing decline.
PHOTO: IMAGO / PA Images
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