Cristiano Ronaldo’s thrilling hat-trick in Tuesday’s play-off second-leg in Sweden confirmed Portugal’s place at next summer’s World Cup finals, and may have secured the Real Madrid attacker the 2013 Ballon d’Or award.
But it did not close the debate over who is the world’s best player.
Ronaldo scored all four of his country’s goals over the two legs against the Swedes, sending his side to Brazil, and the Lisbon media into raptures.
“The new King,” screamed the front page of country’s top-selling daily Correio da Manha. “Ronaldo puts Portugal in Brazil,” headlined leading sports daily A Bola. The front page of Record said simply Golden Ball, referencing Fifa’s extension of the period of voting for this year’s Ballon d’Or award.
The laurels were understandable, given the impact the ex-Manchester United man has made on his country’s fortunes.
Before Ronaldo made his international debut in 2003, they had reached a total of just two World Cups and one European Championship finals in over 70 years. With Ronaldo on board, they have qualified for each of the last six major international tournaments.
Portuguese journalist Manuel Pereira wrote in AS that Ronaldo had matched the feats of national legend Eusebio, while simultaneously lifting the fortunes of an ailing country.
“What Cristiano did was comparable in Portuguese football history only with what Eusebio did at the 1966 World Cup,” Pereira argued. “To score three goals in a game of this calibre is only within the reach of great players like ‘la Pantera Negra’. Amid the deep crisis of our country, what we least needed was a new disappointment. Getting through this play-off will solve none of our current economic problems, but going to the World Cup will make us all happier.”
Portuguese Football Federation (FPF) director Joao Pinto said what many in his countrymen were thinking about the player who had just moved joint top of the country’s all-time international scoring charts with 47 goals, alongside former Paris Saint Germain striker Pauleta.
“This game reinforces the idea that Cristiano is the best in the world,” former international striker Pinto said. “The issue was clarified for anyone who had any doubts.”
But just as those doubts appeared to be dispelled, reports arrived from Catalonia, where Lionel Messi yesterday received the 2012/13 European Golden Boot award. The timing was apt, as whenever Ronaldo appears to have reached the top, Messi tends to come along and knock him off.
This recognition for Messi was joined by some Spanish pundit’s reservations that conditions in the second half on Tuesday had been perfect for Ronaldo — as Sweden needed to take risks when they fell behind.
“Sweden had gone too far up the pitch, and he had space to run into,” wrote Sergio Fernandez in Marca’s report. “Two runs, two more goals, and it was all over.”
Even Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who had appeared about to upstage the Portuguese when he scored two goals in four second half minutes, subscribed to this theory — “If you give Ronaldo three counter-attacks, he will score three goals,” he said. “He is the best at that. But is the best of all? Well, he is incredible but…” Ibra was clearly hurting, but raised a valid point. Ronaldo’s recent goal splurge arrived when Madrid’s new coach Carlo Ancelotti switched back to the counter-attacking style favoured under previous boss Jose Mourinho. That has been devastating against most opponents, but he was held scoreless as Madrid lost to both Barcelona and Atletico Madrid in La Liga in recent weeks. He was also bottled up as Madrid fell to Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund in the last two Champions League semi-finals.
High standards maybe, but Messi and Ronaldo have each disappointed at international tournaments before.
They will both likely face massed ranks of defenders in Brazil next summer, with coaches having learned from the struggles of both Madrid and Barcelona in Europe.
How the rival superstars deal with this tactical planning, on the biggest stage, should determine who goes down in history as the greatest.
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