World Cup: Get set for Rooonaldooo!

Portugal's superstar won the Champions League with Real Madrid and marched towards the World Cup. But he was humbled by the United States in the group stages. That was Luis Figo in 2002.

Cristiano Ronaldo is determined not to let history repeat itself.

Figo was blessed with superior teammates and half the pressure back in 2002. He was a first among near-equals, the head boy of a golden generation.

Ronaldo is the golden boy in 2014. There is no other.

At Real, the obsessive pursuit of La Decima was shared. For Portugal, a country's expectations are carried only on his broad shoulders.

As the world's best footballer and its most marketable, he is unrivalled when it comes to putting bums on seats and leaving defenders on their backsides.

And he must virtually go it alone in Brazil.

When Ronaldo served his apprenticeship at Euro 2004, he was a rising asset among many.

Nurtured by Figo and Rui Costa, he went on to reach the World Cup semi-finals in 2006 with a squad that included Maniche, Ricardo Carvalho, Nuno Valente, Deco and Pauleta.

But the timing was off. Portugal peaked two tournaments before their finest player.

For the Brazil World Cup, coach Paulo Bento has brought the discipline and a resolute 4-3-3 line-up and Joao Moutinho provides the solidity in central midfield, but the formation gets decidedly flaky going further forward.

William Carvalho has the potential, but not the experience. Miguel Veloso, Raul Meireles and Luis Nani are all experienced but have largely failed to live up to their potential.

MAIN MAN

Portugal's perennial problem of finding strikers to lessen Ronaldo's scoring load hasn't been solved either.

At Real, the irrepressible No. 7 has been praised for reining in the selfish streak and contributing more assists.

When he pulls on a Portugal jersey and spots either Helder Postiga or Hugo Almeida, he could be forgiven for dropping his head and charging for goal; a desperate bull in a china shop surrounded by lambs.

Instinctive geniuses struggle to empathise when those around them can't communicate on a similar wavelength.

Perceived fools are not always suffered gladly. In the opening games at Euro 2012, Ronaldo failed to hide his contempt for his teammates' rudimentary errors.

Rather than rise to the occasion, he sank to their level. He underperformed. He sulked. He stormed off the pitch against Germany.

After Denmark's fans chanted "Messi" whenever Ronaldo was in possession, he childishly criticised his Barcelona rival in the post-match interview.

But the turning point came in the final group match against Holland.

Rather than chastise the shortcomings of others, he remembered that his boots were made for talking. And they spoke so eloquently.

Ronaldo scored both goals in the 2-1 win over the Dutch and then the only goal against the Czechs in the quarter-finals.

The hunger finally matched the talent. He truly became Portugal's pivot at Euro 2012, despite the loss on penalties to eventual winners Spain after a 0-0 draw in the semi-finals.

He proved he could win games almost single-handedly. He was on his way to surpassing his nemesis.

Messi still has the better team, but Ronaldo is currently the superior player.

Not surprisingly, Portugal's strategy at this World Cup is simple.

Feed the voracious beast and hope for the best. If Ronaldo has an off-day, there is no Plan B other than to pray for a rapid return to form. The Ballon d'Or winner is rarely out of sorts for long.

Rather than pout on the pitch, Ronaldo now bears the burden like a badge of honour.

His country depends on him. His teammates flounder without him. He is fully aware of his self-importance.

His immeasurable value drives the insatiable ego, which will be further inflated every time the Brazilian commentators scream: "Rooonaldooo!" when he scores.

Being the world's best is not enough. Figo did that already. Ronaldo wants to follow Diego Maradona and join the immortals.

Membership is limited, but the criterion is straightforward. Win the World Cup with an average team and he's in.

We arrived in Brazil with hope, but we will also make sure our feet stay firmly on the ground. - Cristiano Ronaldo (right)


This article was first published on June 10, 2014.
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