Cristiano Ronaldo left the pitch in tears after Portugal were shocked by Morocco in the World Cup quarter-finals Image Credit: AFP

It was a long walk back, the lonely player with a crumbled face made for a poignant image.

In that moment broken only by a trailing camera person and a single fan with misplaced ambition of a selfie it was easy to forget that with 513 million followers, the man being beamed on every sports network was globally the most popular celebrity on social media’s barometer, Instagram.

The final whistle was barely audible, and Ronaldo was off the field quicker than goals he has whipped like lightening over a stellar career which increasingly hints to be in a prime that is past.

After Portugal’s loss to Morocco in the World Cup quarter-final unlike Neymar’s tears with his teammates after Brazil’s shock exit, Ronaldo wasn’t part of Portugal’s collective sorrow as he failed once again to lift the ultimate crown in a sport that has crowned him.

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CR7 (C ristiano R onaldo plus the number 7) chose to march, isolated and isolating as Portugal couldn’t break the single goal lead allowing Morocco’s fairy tale to continue into the semi-finals with the country becoming the first African nation to qualify for that stage.

Could it also be the final nail for a player whose magic with a football is now flickering into the twilight, only he doesn’t seem to notice it?

Was Ronaldo his own nemesis? Benched for the last two Portugal matches in what was his fifth and probably last World Cup, Ronaldo’s timeout has been in the making just as much as it has been of his own making.

An explosive interview to Piers Morgan just ahead of the World Cup had an instant impact, Manchester United terminated his contract by ‘mutual agreement and with immediate effect.’

He no longer has a club to play for and Saudi Arabia side Al-Nassr- nowhere close to the top league- is the only offer- albeit a big one monetarily, on the table.

Then the unthinkable happened

His place in the national team that may also look to rebuild with younger players post the World Cup fiasco could also be at crossroads. The player fell out with the team coach after being substituted in the match against South Korea and against Switzerland.

Football fans saw the unthinkable, it was the first time since 2008 that Ronaldo was not in the starting line-up. His substitute 21- year-old Goncalo Ramos not only scored a hat-trick but was also a reality check on how form even for the greatest is transient, fame lasts longer. At 37 those legs are finally feeling the pull of gravity.

The response to a poll by a Portuguese sports newspaper asking if Ronaldo should start a game or not came with a guttural 70% saying ‘no.’ In the words of a commentator how a journey on the way up is handled can influence how it looks on the way down.

Yet, his has been a classic rag to riches story, brought up by a single mother who wanted to abort him due to poverty and his father’s alcohol addiction. As inspiration goes, Ronaldo’s success from such humble beginnings and based on sheer talent is second to none.

In this age of commercialisation, he puts away bottles of coca cola at press conferences, a gesture that cost the company $4 billion. And yet, awe and his popularity never crossed over to the abiding love that Leo Messi gets from his legion of fans.

Rolando and Federer in a combo image
2022: The Tale of Two Legends Image Credit: Gulf News

Or, if we look beyond football, Roger Federer. Earlier this year one man showed us what consummate admiration looks like.

Roger Federer retired from tennis and took a piece of us with him. His biggest foe and fiercest friend Rafa Nadal, himself inconsolable during Federer’s last appearance at the Laver Cup summed it up for all of us, ‘a part of my life left.’

Reality giving ego a field day

Federer showed that you can win, lose, but it is also the goodwill that you collect in-between that ranks equally high. With Federer what you saw was what you got- tears, joy, and respect even to those hidden behind the scenes at the smallest of tournaments.

Adulation, the kind that surrounds top notch athletes can be numbing from reality giving ego a field day, but as Federer reached higher success his humility shadowed each step.

Recently the winner of 20 Grand Slams shared his experience of being stopped by a guard at the gates of Wimbledon which he has won eight times.

Post retirement Federer decided to visit the hallowed grounds when he was denied entry, but he narrated the incident in just the same way he played his game, with grace and a smile.

Both Federer and Ronaldo are artists, masters of their craft but while the former transcended sport, Ronaldo stopped just short.

Federer knew his time had come, Ronaldo is still yearning to play top level football and for his sake and his contribution to football hopefully he has one last hurrah left.

But more tellingly, while Federer made us cry with him, Ronaldo made us look at his tears and wonder, why did he have to cry alone?