By Andy Brassell
Cristiano Ronaldo swept unhappily through the mixed zone following Portugal's World Cup 2010 exit to Spain, pausing only to utter the few words which resounded around the globe within minutes; "Ask Carlos Queiroz." He gave the impression of a man who had taken just about as much as he could stand. He wasn't the only one in the Portugal camp feeling that way.
The difference is, most of the others felt as if they'd had enough of Ronaldo. The appointment of the star player as Portugal captain never sat easily with either player or team, and it looks as if his tenure with the armband is coming to a merciful end. Portuguese Sports Daily reported on Friday that Porto centre-back Bruno Alves was highly likely to take on the role for the start of the Euro 2012 qualifiers in September.
Many will say it shouldn't have been Ronaldo's to lose in the first place. He always seemed an unusual choice to many. Certainly, David Beckham is another front-page celebrity who seemed an unlikely candidate to captain his country, but when we look at Beckham the footballer we see the ultimate blue-collar worker, ready to work and sacrifice for the team. Ronaldo is the polar opposite, the very essence of individual focus.
It was Luiz Felipe Scolari who first floated the idea of Ronaldo as captain during his time in charge. He spoke passionately at Euro 2008 of his star turn as a natural leader, whose ability would inspire on the pitch. Scolari's aims were twofold - to prepare the successor of Nuno Gomes, and to inspire his talisman to yet greater heights, with a bit of classic, chest-beating Scolari rhetoric. He knew how proud the Portuguese public were of the world's best player (at the time) being theirs, and he wished to make capital of this.
How Ronaldo himself felt about this is open to debate. Publicly, he seemed not to have a care in the world, taking this imminent coronation and rampant speculation linking him with Real Madrid in his stride. But his extravagance sometimes veils an intensely self-demanding streak, the sort of obsessiveness that leads him to do 3,000 sit-ups per day, as revealed last season.
This meant that by the time he did take over the armband, he looked as if he had the weight of the world on his shoulders - being lauded as the world's best, his country's biggest hope and now leader stacked up as well. As the La Liga link persisted and then became concrete, Portugal whispered the unthinkable. Had he taken his eye off the ball and started caring more about his club?
These suggestions hurt Ronaldo badly. He is clearly not a man short on self-confidence, but he is intensely proud of representing Portugal. Managing this pressure, a high club workload and various injuries only served to hinder his efforts to disprove the doubters. But obsession with his own form, and exactingly high standards, are what always made him an uncomfortable fit for an essentially altruistic role.
As people have begun to openly question his motives and his status in the wake of the Spanish defeat, it has all reached a head. Even Luis Figo, always supportive of his fellow Sporting academy graduate, said after the game that Ronaldo was not acting like a captain who, "Must always put the team first." From the skipper at the last World Cup, record cap holder for the national team (with 127) and one of Portugal's greatest-ever players, this is stinging criticism.
Alves is a good candidate. Despite having made his debut for Portugal only three years ago, he has been one of the team captains at the Dragao for the past three seasons, before becoming sole club captain last year. He is widely respected in the squad, solid, dependable and a good organiser. Ronaldo's own power base in the group has been shaken by the fading of one of his closest allies, the experienced midfielder Petit, from the international scene.
The main concern for Carlos Queiroz will be how to get the most out of Ronaldo. While responding to his captain's perceived critique, he emphasised that, "Portugal needs Cristiano and he needs Portugal." What they really need is to make him part of a whole team again, to connect and feel inspired. That will never happen while Ronaldo continues as captain.
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