Cristiano Ronaldo seems to have it all. He’s young, handsome, rich and very, very good at the most popular sport in the world. Of the hundreds of millions who play the game, it is accepted by most that he is the second best behind Lionel Messi and there are plenty who argue that he is better than the Argentine.
It is hard to separate the two in Spain. At times it seems as if they have their own private competition. Ronaldo scores one for Real Madrid, Messi gets two for Barcelona and then it really gets serious.
Yet despite the fact that Ronaldo is playing at the European Championships, the second-biggest football tournament in the world, with Portugal, he is still struggling to escape from the shadow of his nemesis.
On Wednesday evening Denmark fans chanted the Argentine’s name after a second successive under-par performance from the Portuguese star. Perhaps more than the missed chances, those barbs seemed to get under Ronaldo’s skin. “Do you know what he (Messi) was doing this time last year?” He asked reporters. “He was going out of the Copa America in the quarter-finals.”
It is not last year that is the problem however. Just last week, Messi reminded a world that didn’t really need reminding what he is capable of. Thousands of kilometers away from the festival of football in Eastern Europe, Messi was in action in New Jersey, scoring a hat-trick in a thrilling 4-3 win over Brazil.
Messi’s winning goal – when he picked up the ball in his own half, dribbled to just outside the Brazilian penalty area and let fly into the top corner – was a thing of beauty. The Argentine team, bench, fans and much of the world were thrilled.
It is unlikely that Ronaldo shared the joy. At the same time, more or less, he cut a frustrated figure as Portugal lost 1-0 in Lviv. “No games go perfectly,” he said after the match. “I’d have liked to have had more possession but it just wasn’t possible.” You feel that he would have liked more from his team-mates too as his gestures of frustration and disappointment grew grander as the game progressed. The player has the expectations of an entire nation on his shoulders and, from time to time, it shows.
It has to be said that this is not the Portugal side of old – stars such as Figo, Rui Costa, Deco and Joao Pinto have departed leaving the winger as the one true world-class performer. The former Manchester United man just does not seem suited to being the leader of a team. With Figo and Deco around, he could let them take the responsibility and focus on his own considerable skills.
That is the case at Real Madrid where is surrounded by some of the best players in the world. In the Spanish capital, he lines up with the likes of Karim Benzema, Kaka, Mesut Ozil, Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira. And then there is Jose Mourinho on the sidelines. It is a set-up that suits the winger to such an extent that he scored 46 goals in 38 games last season as Madrid won La Liga.
Ronaldo would not be the first player who struggles to replicate domestic form when playing for his national team. Messi has been accused of the same but if the Portuguese star’s performance against Germany was disappointing, his efforts against Denmark were worse.
As well as spurning good opportunities in front of goal, his lack of interest in defensive duties gave the Danes considerable joy down their right flank. The only bright spot was that his team managed to run-out 3-2 winners and keep hopes of the last eight alive.
“He is a player of enormous ability who was not efficient in a couple of situations he found himself in,” Portugal coach Paulo Bento said after the Denmark win. “He’s not under pressure from us, he’s here to help us resolve our problems.”
There’s still time for Ronaldo to get himself into gear and back up what he said before the tournament started.
“Some people say I’m better, other people say it’s him, but at the end of the day, they’re going to decide who is the best player. At the moment… I think it is me.”
On the evidence of the last few days, it is not, but Ronaldo still has the chance to change all that against Holland on Sunday.
John Duerden is a prolific football writer whose work has appeared in the Guardian, ESPN, the New York Times, and Sports Illustrated, among many other publications. This is the first installment of his new column, Top Corner, which will appear regularly on InterAKTV. Follow Johnny on Twitter for more football discussion.