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There is rarely a dull week in the life of Cristiano Ronaldo. The Real Madrid superstar never strays too far from the spotlight, whether it is being romantically linked to Paris Hilton, making a multi-million-dollar transfer or scoring spectacular goals.
But even by his standards, the last few days provided a glut of talking points – ones that he would love to forget.
First up was the Ballon d'Or award, where Ronaldo surrendered his title as the best player in Europe to Barcelona's brilliant Lionel Messi. If that came as no major shock, then the World Cup draw was a somewhat ruder awakening, as Ronaldo and his Portugal teammates were thrust into the 2010 version of the Group of Death.
A Group G matchup with heavyweights Brazil and Ivory Coast has electrified the soccer world, with the games between those sides among some of the most eagerly anticipated first-round clashes.
But for Ronaldo – a player who is sick of hearing his ability to supply peak performance in major tournaments questioned – the heightened danger of early elimination in South Africa is a definite source of stress.
"I can't pretend I am happy about the draw," he snapped. "Of course not."
From the moment Portugal was pulled out of Pot Four and thrown into its fiery World Cup fate, discussion resumed about whether Ronaldo can handle the pressure of the sport's biggest stages.
Maybe at Euro 2004 he was too young. Maybe at the 2006 World Cup he was too immature. Maybe at Euro 2008 he was distracted by talk of whether he would leave Manchester United. The well of excuses has run dry.
So with the gaze of soccer's scrutinizing eye trained upon him more keenly than ever, what does Ronaldo do this weekend? He gets himself sent off.
Not for a couple of mistimed tackles or moderately acceptable lapses in judgment. His infractions in Real Madrid's 4-2 victory over Almeria were of the utterly stupid variety.
First, he was yellow-carded for peeling off his shirt in celebration of the team's fourth goal. Whatever your thoughts on this rule, Ronaldo knew the regulations and what punishment would inevitably follow. Then, with just moments left in the game, he lashed out in retaliation at Almeria's Juanma Ortiz, leaving the referee no choice but to give him a second yellow.
By this point in Ronaldo's career, we might have expected a few more answers. His talent cannot be questioned, but his temperament and maturity remain shadowed by doubt. And it is those psychological factors that will be most needed next summer, with ultimate glory and his reputation on the line.
1. Get him an Advil
Frank Lampard has spent much of the past three and a half years being haunted by the penalty miss that helped knock England out of the 2006 World Cup.
Just 24 hours after the World Cup draw, the Chelsea midfielder was given a nasty reminder with a feeble spot kick that condemned Chelsea to an upset defeat at Manchester City and cut its English Premier League lead to two points.
2. Get him a beer
Still on the topic of penalties, Tim Howard fired the first salvo in the psychological battle leading up to England vs. USA in the World Cup, saving England striker Jermain Defoe's injury-time effort to ensure Everton a draw with Tottenham.
England boss Fabio Capello has made a point of making this a "new England" and discouraged talk of past failures (like penalty shootouts). Lampard and Defoe's misses would have been the last thing he wanted to see, but U.S. coach Bob Bradley's viewpoint that Howard is one of the world's finest goalkeepers will only have been reaffirmed.
3. Get him some earplugs
Jose Mourinho is feeling the heat at Inter Milan, with large sections of the club's fans rapidly turning against the controversial head coach following a dismal run in this season's Champions League.
Saturday's defeat at Juventus does nothing to help his cause, even though Inter remains four points clear at the top of Serie A. Mourinho refused to speak to any of his players or the media after the game, and the view in Italy is that he is beginning to lose control.
4. Keep an eye on …
The bidding war for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. It could be one of the nastiest yet, with reports and rumors of dirty tricks already emerging even though the decision will not be made for another year. The U.S. bid team was furious when legends Luis Figo (Portugal) and Fernando Hierro (Spain) walked in on their video pitch in Cape Town last week, diverting the attention of the assembled dignitaries and media.
5. Catch a flight to …
Turin. Two European giants will fight for one place in the Champions League round of 16 when Juventus plays host to Bayern Munich on Tuesday. Both teams have struggled in a Group A dominated with the outstanding play of Bordeaux. A draw would do for Juventus, while Bayern can progress only with a victory.
6. Useless and completely made-up statistic of the week
56 – the estimated number of times Lionel Messi thanked his teammates during interviews following his Ballon d'Or award. Presumably, Barcelona's players also thank Messi under their breath every time they look at their winners' medals from last season's La Liga, Champions League and Copa del Rey titles.
7. Fond farewell
The United Soccer League. USL, for many years the primary second-tier soccer league in North America, looks done and dusted, at least in its current format, after most of its teams broke away to join the new North American Soccer League last week.
8. Get ready to say hello to …
Dan Califf. The U.S. international is set to end a four-year stint in Denmark and return to Major League Soccer in 2010. Califf will leave FC Midtjylland and join MLS expansion club Philadelphia Union.
9. Get ready to say goodbye to …
Andrew Boyens. The New York Red Bulls defender has caught the attention of a couple of Norwegian clubs after some decent performances for New Zealand in World Cup qualifying.
10. Get excited about …
Do you really need to ask? It's the greatest sporting event on the planet and it's just 26 weeks away. We're ready and pumped for it. Check out our World Cup site.
11. Why it's good to be a soccer player
Because golf clubs hurt more than soccer balls when someone hits you in the head with one. (Thanks to reader Tony Clemente. No idea what he's talking about, obviously.)
- Cristiano Ronaldo
- Lionel Messi