BRASILIA – "People are jealous of me," he said. "Because I am young, handsome, and rich."
That quote from 2011 will forever define Cristiano Ronaldo in the minds of many soccer fans: he's arrogant, elitist, too pretty.
There should be another adjective used to describe him, even for the detractors: resilient.
The Portugal star did not have to play in the group stage of this World Cup. He had a severe right knee injury that one doctor reportedly said could endanger his career. A player who is young, handsome and rich might want to protect his greatest investment, considering so many people are heavily invested in him.
Ronaldo chose to play. And he played brilliantly. After getting marked by one and sometimes two Germans throughout Portugal's opener, his superb last-gasp cross led to a game-tying goal against the Americans, and then on Thursday he was in rare form, streaking up the flanks and crowding the penalty box with regularity. He scored the game-winner in the 79th minute, and it wasn't even one of his best five plays. As terrific as Neymar and Lionel Messi have been for their teams, Ronaldo was every bit as potent for Portugal.
The problem for him and his reputation, though, is that he's going home.
Ronaldo has led Portugal deep into the World Cup – this is his third foray into the tournament – but he doesn't have the crowning national team achievement that the greatest players ever need to cement their legacies. He won the Ballon d'Or in 2013 (and apologized for the 2011 quote that got so many people upset), but Messi isn't Maradona without a World Cup, Neymar isn't Pele without a World Cup, and Ronaldo is not transcendent until he holds that trophy.
That shouldn't diminish him. Messi and Neymar are heirs to soccer royalty. They hail from nations that manufacture amazing talent with astounding regularity. With apologies to Luis Figo, Portugal is not like that; Ronaldo is the nation's pioneer. And at times it looks like he overwhelms even his teammates with his talent.
Portugal doesn't play all that well as a unit. In all three of its group games, it freelanced quite a bit. The Portuguese didn't gather in a compact way on defense the way Germany and even the U.S. did. They were unwieldy. So on Thursday, even though Portugal dominated the first half, Ghana snuck back in to tie the match after the intermission. It took a Ronaldo rebound strike to put it away.
[Photos: Cristiano Ronaldo’s ever-changing hair]
It's easy to argue Ronaldo would have gone deeper into this tournament with Brazil or Argentina. And it's tough to argue Portugal would have been automatically through the group stage with Messi or Neymar on its roster. Portugal is quite good, but not Brazil good. Not Germany good.
So we see images of Ronaldo getting petulant and distressed at his teammates and referees and himself. There is a somewhat famous photo of him during the Germany game, looking as if he's about to cry. This fits nicely with his supposed persona – someone who is entitled and bratty. Yet there are plenty of beloved international athletes who whine about in-game situations. (Hello, Peyton Manning.) And in the context of the Ghana match, Ronaldo's irritability looked far more noble. The team had little chance of advancing, but it was clear the star had a full-throttle desire to win the game. When placed in comparison to the Ghana players, who were enraged about not getting paid before the tournament began, Ronaldo looked a lot better than he's usually cast.
As was the case after full time, when he accepted his man of the match award. Ronaldo limped noticeably into the press room, walked slowly to the dais, and made one statement. He said his team deserved more and did its best. The words conveyed little, but the sight of him, beaten physically and emotionally, showed how much he cared about representing his nation. No, he's not the gritty Clint Dempsey, leading his team to the next round despite a broken nose. But Dempsey would probably rather have a broken nose than an injured right leg. Ronaldo was a warrior, too.
"As I am natural in all I do, I am not always understood well," Ronaldo said earlier this year in an interview with France Football. "My behavior has evolved, although my personality has not changed so much. I always want to improve and I put pressure on myself for that. I am very competitive and hate losing. I want to be the best, permanently, with my club and country. That is the reason why sometimes there can be misunderstandings."
Nobody really needs to sympathize with the man. He is, after all, young, handsome, and rich. But in some ways his gifts overshadow his gift. There was a small social media earthquake about his haircut during the game against the U.S., and whether it was done to honor a boy suffering from cancer. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn't. But he did have a relationship with a boy suffering from cancer, and that's more important than how he styles his hair. Also important: his game-ending play, which saved his team from a humiliating elimination.
How will Ronaldo be remembered after this World Cup? For some it'll be his crying face. For others it'll be his hair. But for still others it'll be the sight of him racing up and back on Thursday, trying desperately to win a game, then looking worn and haggard only a few minutes after playing his heart out.
As we've learned from Ronaldo, looks don't always tell the whole story.