Just after Gonçalo Ramos had smashed the ball past Yann Sommer for the opening goal in last night’s match between Portugal and Switzerland, the cameras flashed briefly on the face of the man he had replaced in the team.
Cristiano Ronaldo, sat on the bench, was not smiling.
He looked like someone who had witnessed a daydream slip through his fingers.
It does not take much of a creative spark to imagine the thoughts that had passed through his mind instead; Portugal struggling late in the game, unable to break through the dogged Swiss, who are not easy to beat at the best of times. A watching nation growing increasingly frustrated at the manager’s refusal to accept what needs to be done.
Eventually, though, even Fernando Santos cannot delay the inevitable for even a minute longer.
He sends for the saviour; cometh the hour, and now cometh The Man.
From there it all plays out like the fairytale it’s meant to be; the spurned hero shoulders the burden for his team-mates and his country. Putting aside all bitterness, even ego, he steps up as only he can and with one majestic sweep of a boot, or inspired nod of his head, sends Portugal through.
This is how it was supposed to be … until some upstart swept in at an acute angle and blasted a shot that only Ronaldo himself should have been able to produce, high into the net.
Oh the cruelty of it. Oh the unfairness. That’s what his face said in that instant.
Take a minute, neutral reader, to lay aside your own feelings for a moment.
Set aside the glee that I know many of us shared in that cut-to from the beaming striker to the sulking old warrior, forever at the centre of the acclaim, watching a new Achilles being born.
In Ronaldo’s struggle there’s a little bit of our own lives, and if he’s raging against the dying of the light that’s something we should all have sympathy with. In the purest sense, Ronaldo hasn’t brought this on himself; his acting out, his petulance, his explosion of what looks like ego is wounded pride. This is a man who can feel more than a daydream slipping away.
All this guy has done is get older.
Little by little. Bit by bit. Day by day.
We all do. Can you maintain the crazy lifestyle that you did ten years ago? Five even?
There are things you can no longer do with the ease at which you once did, and that must break your heart a little.
Bear in mind, this isn’t an average guy with an average life. This is a man who has been feted since he broke into the Sporting Lisbon youth academy side and started to wow people.
In this journey through his life he has won recognition as one of the best, not just in his generation but in the history of the game. He would get into an All Time Eleven.
This is one of the finest players ever to grace the sport, and watching him at times has been a joyous experience for those of us who love the Beautiful Game and everything beautiful in it.
Every football fan who ever watched him with open mouthed wonder – which, let’s be honest is all of us – should feel that something wonderful is leaving the sport we love when this guy hangs his boots up. We’re seeing the last gasp of his greatness.
More to the point, so is he, and that has to hurt.
When he finally did make it onto the pitch last night he put the ball in the net in that celebrated style of his, but of course the goal was chopped off because he had started the run in an offside position. It’s easy to be scornful that a player of his ability can have made that mistake, but in fact that’s the only way he was ever going to get to that shot before the defender closed him down.
The legs have gone. The Ronaldo of old could have been ten yards behind the last man and still beat him to that ball. The finish was sublime; of course it was.
It’s as Toby Keith says in his only decent song; “I ain’t as good as I once was, but I’m as good once as I ever was.”
There are some things this guy will be able to do when he’s 50. Running isn’t one of them.
How it must have burned him to see the kid score a hat-trick, making what Ronaldo has spent all these years doing look somehow easier than it’s ever been, making the craft and the effort and the sheer determination to forge himself into something that was more machine than man seem so effortless, so dependent merely on the luck of what you’re born with.
For all that, by the time the game ended he was one of the boys again, celebrating with his team-mates on the touchline, hugging them, pleased to see his country progress.
And yes, perhaps that’s simply Ronaldo dreaming another dream, the one where he’s left out of the quarter final or the semi or, in the ultimate scenario, the final itself; versus Argentina of course, where Messi has failed to make the breakthrough, and on he comes …
But I have to believe that deep down there is a part of the guy which has already accepted the truth, and is slowly, but surely, mentally pushing past it to life after playing, a life perhaps spent as a pundit or some elder statesman.
The limelight will never again smile on him as it once did.
In those roles there would be no more swaggering on the turf, the scoring of winners, the acclaim of the crowd.
Like a great actor, taking his final bow, the audience will cheer one last time and then nevermore … but there’s always hosting the Oscars, because for someone as famous as him some of that light will always be shining down, and those of us who have watched him will never, ever forget.
In our own lives, how many of us get that?