By CATHAL KELLY
Thursday, June 21, 2018
TORONTO -- As his shift ended on Wednesday, Cristiano Ronaldo began strolling around the pitch with a little smirk, amiably patting the shoulders of men still working around him.
That's a new one. We're used to a different sort of Ronaldo near the end of World Cup games - scowling Ronaldo, arms-flapping Ronaldo, shrieking Ronaldo.
But things are going exceedingly well this time around. Ronaldo is busy adding to his best-in-history credentials. Just as important, his only rival is in the process of chipping away at his own.
There are 736 participants at this World Cup, but only two really matter. Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have been that matched pair for a decade.
Nothing separates them in terms of skill and achievement, but a reputational gap is starting to appear in Russia. Is this the summer Ronaldo definitively pushes Messi into second place?
You won't hear either of them say anything about it. These two are like certain old, married couples - they no longer speak, but have resigned themselves to the fact they're stuck together forever.
Messi has always been the easier to like, largely because he is so inscrutable. All we know about him is what we see on TV: the cheeky grin, the weeble-wobble walk, the on-field bursts. He's sport's Charlie Chaplin - pure and endearing physicality.
By contrast, Ronaldo talks. A lot.
"Too much humility isn't good," he once said. The line ought to be carved on his tombstone.
We've reached a point of consensus on how good they are, if we still disagree strongly on how they make us feel. Dedicated contrarians may twist themselves into rhetorical knots comparing eras, positions and bulk weight of trophies, but if this is a "Who would you choose first?" proposition, these are the top two names in history under consideration. Statistically, they are near perfect contemporaries. But until a couple of years ago, most would have picked Messi as slightly the better.
He has a more alluring backstory, hobbled in childhood by illness. His was the more anticipated arrival, a youth academy legend long before he toddled onto the global stage. He debuted for the greatest team ever, FC Barcelona in the mid-aughts.
The first act of his professional sporting life could not have been smoother.
Ronaldo had a tougher time of it. He came up hard in rural Portugal, and arrived with a reputation as a whiner. On his Manchester United debut, he had ribbons tied into his hair - presumably to create an equestrian effect as he sprinted - and became a running joke.
His first couple of years in England were a qualified bust. Here was another theatrical sort from the continent more concerned with doing stepovers than anything useful. Even his name was a problem - there was already a famous Ronaldo.
First impressions are resilient. They followed both men well into their late 20s.
Messi was an uncomplaining professional.
Ronaldo was a perpetual child who did not like sharing his toys.
Perhaps that's why no one discusses Messi's built-in advantages. He'd lived in Spain since he was a grade-schooler. He went up the ranks with the same tight group of friends. He's never played on a middling or even mildly struggling club team. Though he was demonstrably the best among his peers, he was not expected to carry the burden of leadership. All he had to do was score goals and appear humble.
Ronaldo had an itinerant childhood, functionally raising himself from the age of 12.
At 18, he moved away and had to absorb a new culture and a different language. Those first United teams were good, but not great.
Ronaldo dragged doubt around behind him like an anchor for a long time. He didn't arrive as a truly elite player until he was 23. Three years his junior, Messi had got there first.
Ronaldo moved to Spain in 2009.
Though now in direct competition, each continued to pretend the other did not exist. When trapped into commenting, they'd hide behind "we bring out the best in each other" banalities.
A more telling story - after the 2012 season, Ronaldo, as is his annual habit, began musing about leaving Madrid. The club's president threatened to spend the club bankrupt buying Messi to replace him. Ronaldo decided to stay.
The rivalry settled into stasis. They traded scoring titles and silverware. Neither man made a definitive impression in a World Cup. Few observers felt bothered to change their initial assessment.
But in the past while, Ronaldo has begun to inch ahead. He's been named world's best player in four of the past five years. Portugal won an unlikely European Championship in 2016, just as Messi's Argentina was once again pooching its South American equivalent. Things were beginning to tip the other way.
Russia 2018 was set up as the final measuring stick. If neither man separated himself from the other during their last chance to do so while in their primes, we'd agree to disagree from then on.
Ronaldo scored three goals in his first game - as many as he had in the previous four World Cups combined. Messi was a peripheral figure in his first outing and missed a penalty.
Fifteen years of uninterrupted fawning went out the window. Suddenly, Messi was a choker incapable of rising to the occasion.
His poor mother had to come out on his behalf, saying she had seen him "suffer and cry" over his international disappointments.
His countryman, Hernan Crespo, ran to his defence and, in doing so, got his feet all tangled.
"How many great players didn't win [the World Cup]?" Crespo said. "I don't remember Johan Cruyff or [Michel] Platini doing it?" So now Messi is comparable to a guy who's not even the best French player ever?
On Wednesday, Ronaldo scored the game's only goal early. Portugal's midfield then took the rest of the afternoon off while Morocco swamped them for 90 minutes. Nevertheless, Ronaldo appeared delighted at the way things had gone.
The poverty of support tended to highlight the richness of his own talent. Also, he knows the screw is turning.
On Thursday, Argentina will face an inform Croatia team. It feels absurd to say it of a player of Messi's accomplishments, but his reputation is in play here. People have begun pressing against the pedestal, testing its solidity. If Messi goes over, he has a long way to fall.
This could all flip again with one grand performance. Whatever the case, it will be hard to take anything substantive from this tournament unless one of them wins a world championship. That's the only thing that would end the either/or argument.
It's probably best that we continue to live in doubt. It would be the fair thing.
But it does go to show that iconography is a fickle business, and especially so in soccer. You can do everything right for years - better than anyone's ever done it - and people will love you.
But if you miss your moment at the World Cup, they will happily turn on you.
Ronaldo already knows how that feels.
He's been the villain of the piece for the entire length of this rivalry.
In fact, that feeling may be the only thing that separates him from the enemy who has done more than any friend to define him.