Though Real Madrid will lose their superstar in the short term, they will benefit from his presence at the World Cup writes Ian Hawkey.
Ronaldo's sacrifice was worth making
Technically, it was a mere cameo. Cristiano Ronaldo stayed on the field for only 18 minutes for Portugal against Hungary on Saturday. He did not register on the scoresheet, and so his goalless record in the 2010 World Cup qualifiers endures, at least until the probable play-off Portugal face in the middle of next month. But this was a cameo that will resonate as a chapter in the growing legend of Ronaldo the inspirer, and reverberate rather uncomfortably for the next three weeks in Madrid, where he is employed.
The Portuguese press yesterday were full of Ronaldo's "self-sacrifice" in the desperate cause of his country's efforts to be at the next World Cup. They began the weekend, remember, trailing Denmark and Sweden and in third place in Group One of the European qualifying section. They had a stroke of good luck when, earlier the evening, Denmark beat Sweden, meaning a Portugal win would propel Ronaldo's team above the Swedes. But the participation of Ronaldo was fraught. He was nursing an injury to his right ankle, had missed Real Madrid's previous match because of it, and trained rather gingerly ahead of the D-day at the Estadio da Luz in Lisbon.
Now, it would be fair to report that "self-sacrifice" has not always been the first description applied to Ronaldo's football. He plays the game with an ego, and can talk with one too. He boldly told journalists the day before the assignment with the Hungarians that "anybody who said I wasn't worth the fee [the ?94 million (Dh507m) Real paid Manchester United for him in June] was wrong." Nobody was about to tell him he was unfit for the challenge of keeping open the possibility that the current World and European Footballer of Year would be at the World Cup.
So, injured or not, he wore the captain's armband for Portugal, some heavy bandages around his ankle, and after 18 minutes, chasing an over-hit cross into the Hungary penalty box, he twisted around on that sore right ankle and turned sharply on it again to direct a tightly angled cross with his left foot just behind the six-yard line. Gabor Babos, in the Hungary goal, connected with the ball, but could not hold it, and Simao Sabrosa converted for 1-0. Ronaldo then limped from the stage, his work done. He had set up the first of the goals in Portugal's 3-0 victory, and now he had an injury to nurse.
The margin of victory in the end comfortably lifted Portugal into the silver medal position in their table, though there had been moments before Ronaldo set up the opening goal that were symptomatic of the nervousness that has afflicted their football over the last 15 months. They needed an alert stop from their goalkeeper Eduardo to prevent Zoltan Gera giving Hungary an early lead; later, Balazs Dsudzsak's effort shaved Eduardo's right-hand post.
But given their momentum by Ronaldo, this was a Portugal that grew in confidence, and played to their strengths. Their three goals came from crosses - Liedson and Simao added to the score in the final quarter hour - delivered from wide positions, as if to remind the Luz, and perhaps the rest of the world that, however flaky the national team has appeared over the course of these qualifiers, one thing Portugal does produce is wingers: the likes of Luis Figo; Ronaldo; Ricardo Quaresma; Simao or Nani, who replaced Ronaldo against Hungary and provided the centre for Liedson's goal.
"We played with intelligence and managed to force Hungary into mistakes, which was important," summarised Carlos Queiroz, Portugal's head coach. "We're much closer now to our objective." Victory at home against Malta tomorrow will assure Portugal of a play-off berth, and, given that Malta have collected a single point in what has been an otherwise competitive Group One, they should manage that even without the recuperating Ronaldo.
There is good news, too, for the Portuguese from Fifa's decision to seed the draw for the play-offs. Portugal's ranking has not slipped so far over the last year or so that they will be in the bottom half of the draw. It means they would face a two-legged tie with either Ireland, Ukraine, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Slovakia or Slovenia to make it to South Africa. They would be favourites to win any of those.
But there may well be a will-he-or-won't-he Ronaldo cliffhanger during the build-up. The self-sacrificing superstar return to Madrid for medical examination at the club who pay him so handsomely and the verdict is that his ankle problem could take as much as a month to heal. It goes without saying that Real are none too happy about their player returning from international duty more injured, in their minds, than he was when he left.
"It's clear to us that this is not a new injury he picked up on Saturday, so he probably wasn't in the right condition to play at all," said Jorge Valdano, sports director at Madrid. "But I do understand the importance of that game, and what a committed professional Ronaldo is." Indeed, Real's executives understood the importance of Portugal's match against Hungary all too well. Ahead of it, the marketing men at the Bernabeu stadium had calculated that a World Cup without Ronaldo would be very expensive indeed - for Real. They invested that ?94m in the belief the player's huge global profile would bring greater commercial revenue to his new club. And no football event, even Real will admit, raises profile like a World Cup. They want him there almost as much as he wants be there.
Ian Hawkey is an expert on European football. He splits his time between Barcelona and Milan and has been covering Italy's Serie A for 15 years firstname.lastname@example.org