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Will Cristiano Ronaldo ever win a major title again?

Cristiano Ronaldo
(Image credit: Getty)

It was not supposed to go like this. Not for Cristiano Ronaldo, the footballer with more experience of bending events to his will than virtually any other ever.

The record goalscorer in the history of international football (and the European Championships) was not meant to end up sat on the turf in tears, potentially missing out on what had looked like his valedictory World Cup. Sunday’s defeat to Serbia plunges Portugal into a play-off and if that revives memories of Ronaldo’s heroics at the same stage to defeat Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Sweden in 2013, it raises the possibility his last game on the global stage will be the 2018 defeat to Uruguay.

Ronaldo will be 41 by the time of the 2026 tournament; surely too old, even for him. If it is now or never for him to figure in a fifth World Cup, it may be never.

But then it was not supposed to turn out that way either when Manchester United were 4-0 down to Liverpool by half-time, with Ronaldo reduced to booting Curtis Jones and fleeing the scene as he avoided a red card. Or when his return to the Manchester derby saw Manchester City exert an almost embarrassing level of dominance.

Ronaldo was not supposed to be level on points with Brighton, or beaten by Young Boys of Bern or Aston Villa or Serbia or to draw with Ireland. Taken in isolation, these results can happen; when put together, this feels the most chastening season of an extraordinary 15-year spell. If that reflects the heights Ronaldo has touched, averaging close on 50 goals and two trophies a year for club and country over a decade and a half, it also means he can feel a stranger to the kind of setbacks mere mortals encounter.

Even his triumphant homecoming was borne of rejection. Juventus no longer wanted him. Ronaldo illustrated his enduring gift for the dramatic by flirting with City before rejoining United. The showmanship was apparent in his two-goal second debut against Newcastle. The force of personality that enabled him to become the Champions League’s record scorer has been apparent in the way he has headed into uncharted territory by extending his goal tally while trying to avert further ignominy. Without his dramatic late goals against Villarreal and Atalanta, he may be tumbling into the Europa League, if not worse. 

By most people’s standards, Ronaldo’s personal season would rank as a success. Observers of football’s longest-running duel may note that Lionel Messi only has seven goals whereas the Portuguese has struck 14 times in 17 games; some crucial, some brilliantly taken, most evidence that, for a 36-year-old, he is a freak. He is at a club where he is adored and it is only a matter of time before he becomes the first player to score 800 senior goals; at least if those in Pele and Romario’s gardens are excluded. 

But in other respects, it feels a campaign of hubristic failures. It may be one where Ronaldo tumbles off the pedestal of the current greats even as he tries to fight off decline, a goal at a time. For club and country alike, he feels embroiled in a mess. With the exceptions of their 2019 Nations League triumph, Fernando Santos’ Portugal have underachieved since winning Euro 2016. They have started to look less than the sum of their considerable parts, a team in need of new ideas. They will have the players to prosper in a play-off, but then they had the talent to beat a Serbia side who failed to qualify for a 24-team European Championships.

United, meanwhile, are a mess, stumbling in and out of crises they have created, their bench littered with younger talents displaced by Ronaldo, their lack of coherent thinking apparent on the pitch. Juventus came fourth in Serie A last season and it was the lowest league finish of Ronaldo’s wonderful career but with United six points behind West Ham, it feels very possible that this season will see him tumble lower. 

Portugal may yet reach Qatar just as United are certainly capable of salvaging a top-four position but with every indication of the problems around Ronaldo – and which, if his teams are deemed star vehicles, reflect on him – it renders it less likely that he will win the major honours again. The Ronaldo era lasted longer at the game’s summit than virtually everyone else’s but it may be ending. His tears may have been for his country, but for himself as well.

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