BRASILIA, Brazil (AP) — Coming off his most successful season at club level, this was supposed to be the World Cup where Cristiano Ronaldo underlined his new-found superiority over great rival Lionel Messi and his status as the game’s best player.
It hasn’t quite worked out that way.
Hindered not just by a left leg injury but also the poor quality of the Portugal teammates alongside him, Ronaldo exits the World Cup with one goal and some below-par performances — by his standards — from three group matches.
His lone goal was the winner in a 2-1 victory over Ghana on Thursday that failed to stop Portugal slipping out of the tournament.
Meanwhile, Messi has led Argentina into the last 16 with four goals, the joint-highest tally at the World Cup. After losing his FIFA Player of the Year crown to Ronaldo, Messi is set to have the last laugh in Brazil.
Ronaldo cut a thoroughly frustrated figure during and after the Ghana match.
Throwing up his arms, kicking fresh air and often standing with his hands on his hips, the Real Madrid superstar didn’t hide his unhappiness with his teammates.
But they weren’t solely to blame — in the white of Madrid, Ronaldo has been slotting away the kind of gilt-edged chances that fell to him at Brasilia’s Estadio Nacional.
There was a header from six yards out in the 19th minute that, although well-saved by goalkeeper Fatawu Dauda, should have been dispatched. Then came two more clear openings for Ronaldo in second-half injury time, one he bundled over the bar and the other he shot straight at Dauda in a one-on-one chance.
“We created many opportunities but we could not finish them,” Ronaldo said.
After scoring what proved to be the winning goal, Ronaldo simply turned round and trotted back to the halfway line. Rarely can a winner have been celebrated with such little joy.
When the final whistle was blown, Ronaldo — with his head down — made a hasty retreat toward the tunnel, only to run into a number of Ghana squad members who shook hands and embraced the Portugal captain.
Accepting his man-of-the-match award, Ronaldo — with strapping around his right knee and moving gingerly — barely raised a smile.
“We are leaving with our heads held high,” Ronaldo said. It didn’t appear that way.
Save for the World Cup, Ronaldo has had a career-best season. The stats tell it all.
The Champions League’s top scorer for the second straight season, with his 17 goals setting a new record for a campaign. His successfully converted penalty in the final against Atletico Madrid was his 51st for Madrid in all competitions. In La Liga, he scored 31 times, making him the Europe’s top league scorer alongside Liverpool’s Luis Suarez.
At international level, he scored all four of Portugal’s goals in the aggregate playoff win over Sweden to secure a place at the World Cup, including a sizzling hat trick in the second leg.
To top it all off, he became world player of year in January, regaining the accolade he won for the first time in 2008.
So why the dip in standards at the World Cup?
Firstly, and possibly most crucially, he arrived in Brazil hampered by tendinitis and a muscle injury in his left leg. He was seen needing ice packs on his knee during training sessions and concerns lingered about his level of fitness after a largely ineffective performance against Germany in a 4-0 loss.
Fans had to wait until the fifth minute of injury time in Portugal’s second match, against the United States, for Ronaldo’s first noteworthy contribution at the World Cup. A pinpoint, curling cross allowed Silvestre Varela to head in the equalizer for a 2-2 draw that kept Portugal in the tournament.
It proved to be a false dawn.
Ronaldo acknowledged after that match the limitations of his national side.
“We’re probably just an average team,” Ronaldo said. “I’d be lying if I said we were a top team.”
According to FIFA, Portugal is currently the fourth best team in the world. Take Ronaldo out and the Portuguese would drop significantly down those rankings.
A lack of a potent striker, to complement Ronaldo, has been their problem for a decade and there doesn’t appear to be a solution.
So, Ronaldo must continue shouldering the burden of his country’s national team. But he won’t be doing it in Brazil any longer.
Back home in Madrid, he’ll simply be watching as Messi — his nemesis — looks to guide Argentina to World Cup glory and underscore his name in football’s pantheon.