SAO PAULO — The international media has been camped out at Portugal’s World Cup training ground all week, focusing giant lenses and endless questions on the left knee of magical forward Cristiano Ronaldo. Is it in a brace? Is it wrapped with ice? How serious is the tendinitis? Did his doctor really advise him to pull out of the tournament?
And, the most pressing question: Will he play Sunday against the United States in Manaus?
All indications are he will. He practiced Friday, and though he didn’t do interviews, his teammates said he would be ready. Portugal is desperate for a win after its worst World Cup loss ever — 4-0 to Germany — and no player is more important to that team than Ronaldo. U.S. coaches and players are bracing themselves.
“At the moment we certainly expect he’s going to play,” U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley said. “A game of this magnitude, of this importance for both teams, you’d always expect that the best players are going to find any way to be on the field.”
Even in a tournament loaded with 736 world-class soccer players, Ronaldo stands out — and not just because of his narcissistic bare-chested goal celebrations, winking, muscle flexing, or his endorsements with Nike, Coca-Cola, Armani and Motorola.
The Portuguese captain is an extraordinary talent, which is why Spanish giant Real Madrid paid $132 million to Manchester United to sign him in 2009. In 2013, he reportedly earned $80 million, with $52 million in salary and $28 million in sponsorship deals.
He is the complete player, a rare combination of size, speed, strength and skill. He can run with the ball on either foot. He is good in the air. He can play on the left, right or center of the front line. He can score on set plays, up close and from distance. He also is considered one of the best — if not the best — dribblers in the game. His step-over dribbles are emulated by kids on every corner of the earth.
And his theatrical falls (some would say dives) often result in free kicks, at which he also excels.
At 29, he already has scored more than 300 goals for club and country, including 51 this season as he led Real Madrid to the Champions League title. He scored eight goals in World Cup qualifying.
“When you look at the game today, there’s such a premium on the physical aspect of the game — speed, strength, endurance,” Bradley said. “He is a guy who checks all of those boxes, and then, when you talk about his technical ability, the way he shoots with his right foot, his left foot, how good in the air he is. He’s somebody who can make a difference at any moment.”
Added U.S. midfielder Kyle Beckerman: “He doesn’t need many touches. I mean, it can be a game where he gets maybe 20, 30 touches but has two goals. You’ve got to just be on high alert when he touches the ball because he’s just so dangerous.”
Even a hobbled Ronaldo can pose a serious threat, especially with the high stakes surrounding Sunday’s match at Arena de Amazonia. He is expected to have plenty of fans rooting for him and his team. Though half of the crowd in Manaus will be rooting for the United States, many Brazilian fans adopt Portugal as their second team because of their shared language and history.
“Now [Portugal] are going to come into Manaus pretty angry and we all know how Ronaldo performs when he is angry,” U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said.
Ronaldo’s rise to fame and fortune began with extremely modest beginnings.
His full name is Cristiano Ronaldo dos Santo Aveiro, and he was born in 1985 on the island of Madeira. His mother, Maria Dolores was a cook, and his father, Jose Dinis, was a gardener. He is the youngest of four siblings and the Ronaldo part of his name is a tribute to former U.S. president Ronald Reagan, whom the soccer player’s father greatly admired.
His skills were noticed early, and Portuguese club Sporting Lisbon signed him to its academy when Ronaldo was 11. At 18, he signed with Manchester United, and he has been mesmerizing fans ever since.
U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard played three seasons with Ronaldo at Manchester United.
“He’s strong, physically he’s a fast runner, the best in the world with the ball at his feet,” Howard said. “Good striker, left and right foot. Dominant in the air. The list goes on and on. That’s why he’s the best in the world. We’re going to try to do our best to bottle him up, which hasn’t been done for four or five years, but we’ll see what we can do..”
Howard and his teammates are focusing on the entire Portugal team, but they will always have one eye on Ronaldo. Defenders Fabian Johnson and DaMarcus Beasley will be largely responsible for corralling him, but it will be equally important for the U.S. midfield to cut off the Portuguese supply of passes to their superstar. Beckerman, Weston native Alejandro Bedoya, Bradley and Jermaine Jones will try to make sure Ronaldo doesn’t get the ball as much as he’d like.
“He is a big challenge, for sure,” Beckerman said. “We’re going to have to be aware of him at all times and especially I think when he’s most dangerous is when you have the ball and you’re attacking. We’ve seen games where the others team’s attacking looks dangerous, next thing you know they lose the ball, find Cristiano and it’s in the back of their net. It’s going to be something where we’ll always be aware of him. Everybody’s going to have to have an eye on the offense, on defense and it’s going to take eleven guys playing offense and defense to win this game.”
Bradley said the Americans are up to the challenge.
“We understand what a special player he is, we understand how good of a team they have, but it’s not something that fazes us,” Bradley said. “We’re excited by the challenge; we’re excited by the moment. We feel like we’ve put ourselves in a good position. Now, to follow up a good start to the tournament with another result, that’s the only thing we’re worried about at the moment.”
Spectacular as Ronaldo is, U.S. veteran midfielder Jermaine Jones has been in the sport long enough to know that one star can’t win a game. England has Wayne Rooney, and it lost its first two games. Spain has a roster full of stars, and that team is headed home, too. Jones brought up the Miami Heat’s NBA Finals loss last week as an example of how star-power doesn’t always lead to victory.
“Ronaldo is a great player, but I always say that a team is important, not just two or three players,” Jones said. “So, if you stick together like a team, and fight like a team, then you go forward or you go backwards, you will win the game. The NBA Finals showed how it works. The Spurs were the better team and that is why they won the championship.”