All is forgiven, Cristiano Ronaldo.
In the end, Portugal was the United States’ biggest ally even when it didn’t need to be, and Ronaldo, its star, gave the U.S. a form of closure it could not attain itself.
A Ghana own goal put Portugal in front, 1-0, and the U.S. had some breathing room along its own game against Germany, which was scoreless after 45 minutes. Within two minutes of each other shortly after halftime, the Germans scored to take a one-goal lead and Ghana finally broke through to tie the game, meaning Ghana was only a goal away from breaking American hearts yet again.
It led to a nervous 23 minutes of not-again agony for the U.S.
Four minutes after Ghana’s goal, the Black Stars nearly scored on a bicycle kick in the box, and soon after, they had all the meaningful possessions. Ghana looked so dangerous against a brittle Portuguese defense, and it seemed for a short while that the U.S. would have to tie Germany, realistically, to escape the group.
While the Germans had comfort and the United States and Ghana had varying degrees of hope, Portugal had nothing after 70 minutes.
The stylish win Portugal needed obviously wasn’t going to happen, and the fourth-ranked Portuguese had cemented another major-tournament disappointment. But something funny happened when Portugal finally lost all grip on advancing: It started playing inspired.
The desperate Ghanians were attacking in droves, and any time Asamoah Gyan came near the ball, Americans with long memories were watching with one eye open. Under that circumstance, with nothing to gain, Portugal took back the game. Ronaldo roved everywhere, causing problems for Ghana’s back line but ultimately suffering from the same problem he had for most of the tournament, failing to turn promising attacks into goals.
With the game tied at one, play seemed like it just wouldn’t give Ronaldo a break.
I was a proud captain of the anti-Ronaldo bandwagon. I’ve argued many times that he doesn’t support his teammates because he shows so little interest in defense – which isn’t unfair – and that he’s a diver. And a crybaby. And he’s frail-minded. And one needs to look no further than him to understand why Portugal can’t cash in on its talent.
What he showed Thursday, though, was a respect for competition. His energy changed the game – and seemed to enliven teammate Nani, who was critical down the right side. Ronaldo created the final run and finished a scramble in the box with a cool, left-footed finish, draining the life from Ghana and putting the U.S. comfortably in the final 16. Like Barry Sanders, Ronaldo barely acknowledged he had done something. He put his head down and walked to where he was supposed to be.
In the course of his career, that goal against Ghana will mean nothing to him. It was the end of another major national disappointment in his prime. There was nothing to be gained for an already injured Ronaldo by playing an inspired last 15 minutes. He could have been subbed out and nobody would have blamed him. But he plowed on for competition’s sake.
That effort and that goal – and not just because the U.S. was the benefactor – deserves respect.
Even Ronaldo’s detractors, if just for today, should give a respectful nod to No. 7’s World Cup finale.