By James Robson
The Associated Press
DOHA, Qatar – Not for the first time Cristiano Ronaldo dares to deliver on the big stage.
Struggling to accept the effects of age, a man of seemingly limitless confidence is banking on the World Cup to put a glorious final act on his remarkable career.
His explosive interview with Piers Morgan this week set the stage for the 37-year-old Portuguese striker for a anything-and-anything couple of weeks, leaving him little room for maneuver if things go wrong.
It’s quite a gamble. But for Ronaldo, who has written his own story in a trophy-filled career, failure is unlikely to have even been considered.
He has deliberately ensured the focus is on him in Qatar by waging a public war with Manchester United and putting himself on the market.
The question is whether it is self-confidence or self-deception.
Given his performances on the field this season, reality has hit him hard. The speed boost seems to have evaporated. The energy levels are not equal. And perhaps most shockingly, that cutting edge just isn’t there.
Of United’s 21 games this season, Ronaldo has been involved in 16, scoring just three goals.
Two of those goals were scored against Moldovan club Sheriff FC in the Europa League – one from a penalty. The other was a winner against Everton, marking the 700th of his club career.
Despite the milestone he achieved in the Premier League with that goal, these stats provide little evidence that he will make a strong statement at the World Cup. But listening to him in this interview, it’s clear that Ronaldo believes he has been underused and badly used by United manager Erik ten Hag.
The World Cup is his chance to prove that because when he carries his club form into the tournament it’s hard to know where he’ll show up next.
Even with 24 goals last season, he failed to secure a move to one of Europe’s leading clubs and there is little to suggest that the picture has changed now. His willingness to call his manager, owners and other players on international television could make it difficult for Ronaldo to attract admirers when the January transfer window opens.
Whether a fight for the Golden Boot as top scorer in Qatar and a deep run for Portugal would change that remains to be seen. But it’s certainly his only chance to extend his career in top-flight football.
“Maybe it’s good for Manchester and probably good for me to start a new chapter,” he told TalkTV.
The Premier League club responded by saying they had “taken appropriate steps” following his actions. Termination of his contract is a possible consequence.
Even as a free agent, Ronaldo’s reported salary of around £500,000 ($590,000) a week poses a significant hurdle for other interested clubs. That’s why it’s so important for him to provide evidence he can yet deliver at the highest level.
Yet Ronaldo’s off-field actions have proved more notable. No more so than in that interview with Morgan, in which he came across as a grumpy old man who blamed almost everyone else for failing to make himself the focal point of a team – and possibly a sport – that could do without moves him forward.
“It’s the new coaches that are coming,” he said. “They think they’ll find the last Coca-Cola in the desert.”
That analogy only fed the impression that he – a five-time Ballon d’Or winner who has won five Champions League titles and seven league titles in three different countries – is increasingly a player who has lost touch with the modern game.