The “will he, won’t he?” debate about whether Cristiano Ronaldo will attempt to play in a fifth World Cup in four years’ time can start in earnest following Portugal’s elimination from Russia 2018 at the round-of-16 stage by Uruguay.
It has already begun for Lionel Messi, who was also given his boarding pass for a flight home on Saturday when Argentina fell to a 4-3 defeat vs. France in Kazan — but the two superstars have wholly different issues to consider before making a decision regarding their international future.
Messi came to life in Argentina’s do-or-die group game against Nigeria, scoring a stunning goal and inspiring a crucial 2-1 victory, but has often looked crushed by the weight of expectancy that comes with leading a football nation as demanding and historically successful as Argentina.
Ronaldo, however, appears energised whenever he wears the Portuguese badge on his chest. He is the global image of his nation and relishes the pressure that comes with being the man expected to deliver. And the big question is whether he is ready — or even contemplating — to give all of that up.
Ronaldo will be three months short of his 38th birthday when Qatar 2022 kicks off, but, while it remains to be seen if he will be there, Portugal coach Fernando Santos is confident his captain will continue beyond Russia.
“Cristiano still has a lot to give to football,” said Santos. “There is a tournament [UEFA Nations League] in September, and we hope Cristiano will be with us to help the players grow.”
Whereas Ronaldo is loved and cherished by Portugal, Messi plays for a poor Argentina team that is unlikely to be good enough to win a World Cup until 2026 at the earliest, and the Barcelona forward will be long gone by then.
Argentina have not won Copa America for 25 years, and so every time Messi pulls on his country’s shirt, he knows he is representing a failing generation that has proven unable to match the feats of the 1978 World Cup winners, nor the Diego Maradona-inspired world champions of eight years later or the continental champions of 1991 and 1993.
Ronaldo does not have to shoulder the same burden. Portugal, ironically after their talisman limped off early due to injury in the final against France, achieved their dreams by winning Euro 2016, so this small European nation has already savoured a success it perhaps never truly imagined.
Forty million Argentinians will demand to know why Messi & Co. are returning home early after failing to win it for a third time, whereas nobody really envisaged Portugal as World Cup winners in Russia.
It means Ronaldo can go home knowing his status as a national hero is secure, so what happens next is all about his own ambition and insatiable appetite for creating records and raising his own bar.
Not that this latest exit, which came courtesy of two Edinson Cavani wonder goals for Uruguay, will have not hurt. Ronaldo’s best chance to win the game’s biggest prize probably came in 2006, when a great team including Luis Figo, Deco and Ricardo Carvalho suffered a 1-0 semifinal defeat against France.
And so, as Messi and Ronaldo consider what to do next, there is a difference: Messi must ask if he wants to continue to expose himself to the draining pressure of playing for Argentina, while Ronaldo’s dilemma is whether a four-year wait for Qatar is a price worth paying for the adulation he gets whenever he plays for Portugal.
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