The World Cup finals have always showcased the planet's finest football talent, yet there remains a distinct possibility that next year's competition in South Africa will not feature the world's best two players. Lionel Messi's Argentina were well beaten by Brazil on Saturday night in Rosario, leaving Diego Maradona's side an uncertain fourth in the South American qualifying group.
More acute is the situation facing Portugal and their star player Cristiano Ronaldo. Despite Carlos Quieroz's side's sublime talents like Ronaldo, Ricardo Carvalho, Pepe, Deco and Simao, they could only draw 1-1 on Saturday against group leaders Denmark in Copenhagen. Having won just two of their seven group games, Portugal are also fourth in a group whose only guaranteed qualifier is the first-placed team.
The optimism which surrounded Quieroz's appointment has evaporated and Portugal's wretched home form has left them without a single home win. Instead, they have been defeated by Denmark and been held by Albania and Sweden, not the form expected of a side which dispatched England to reach the semi-final stage in the last World Cup. Ronaldo cut a forlorn figure as he left Denmark's national stadium on Saturday night.
"We are sad," he said briefly as he passed journalists in the mixed zone, "and we know that we have to do better." Portugal face a key trip to Hungary this week, before home matches, a return game with the Hungary, and Malta. The Portuguese public are understandably vexed, though their media are more critical and accuse Ronaldo of not taking his national team duty seriously. One columnist unfairly opined that Ronaldo would prefer the beach and the company of Hollywood babes next summer, misunderstanding the motivation and determination which has seen him realise his potential to be crowned Fifa's World Player of the Year.
Ronaldo may be followed everywhere by the paparazzi and he may be spotted in the coolest Madrid cafes with the prettiest girls, but none of his coaches have ever questioned his professionalism. Former Manchester United teammates maintain he was among the best trainers at Carrington. Ronaldo is also used to pressure and great expectations. These have moved up a notch at Real Madrid, where the frothy tabloid culture, his single status and tag of being the world's most expensive player have made him the prime focus of media attention.
"It's like that in Madrid," said Barcelona captain Carles Puyol. "In Barcelona the media leave you alone and respect your priv-- ate lives." Because of the Ronaldo obsession, Real's other stellar signings like Kaka can lead relatively quiet lives. That is not to say that Ronaldo is not enjoying his new life in Spain. "I'm just a normal person," Ronaldo said last week, "leading a very unnormal life."
He tries to make it as conventional as possible, leaving his ivory towers to go shopping and to the cinema - and thus increasing the media obsession. Ronaldo has learned from David Beckham, the man he replaced at United and, in terms of profile, at Real. Beckham showed that a high profile need not derail a successful football career. Ronaldo also has his family for support. Unlike Manchester where his bachelor pad did not always have the type of environment of which Sir Alex Ferguson would approve, his family now live with him in a plush Madrid suburb popular with other footballers.
Ronaldo dotes on his mother, a bond which became stronger when he lost his father while living in Manchester. Ronaldo has been hardened by years of living away from home and admitted that he cried every day when he first moved to Lisbon because he missed his family so much. Now, they are reunited and happy where the language is similar to Portuguese, as are the culture and climate. His family were present in the Bernabeu for his competitive Real debut against Deportivo La Coruna last week, when Ronaldo scored a penalty. Raul usually takes Real's spot kicks, but Ronaldo was adamant. It was as if he wanted to prove to himself that he can score for Real Madrid. He has shown glimpses of the outstanding form which became the norm at Old Trafford, but coach Manuel Pellegrini stated that he still needs a little more time to adapt to Spanish football - something Ronaldo acknowledges.
"English football is more physical," he said. "In Spain players have more time and the ball is passed around much more on the floor." Challenges will come aplenty. He will play his first away game with Real at Espanyol on Saturday, but he knows that the biggest tests will be when he is expected to be a match winner in a Champions League knockout game or against Barcelona. That is the level of expectation attached to his talents, which justified the £80 million (Dh480m) fee. Despite the pressure, Ronaldo is sanguine and realistic. "I can please a lot of people and bring happiness to many," he said, "but I can't please everyone."