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Ronaldo is under fire again - Qatar 2022 will define the 'bulletproof' striker's World Cup legacy

14:00 GMT 23/11/2022
Cristiano Ronaldo Portugal Last Dance
The five-time Ballon d'Or winner's Manchester United return ended in acrimony, so can he silence his critics on the game's grandest stage?

Cristiano Ronaldo has long been aware that he infuriates as many people as he inspires. "I know that people keep their rifles pointed,” he once told La Repubblica, “waiting for me to miss a penalty or mess up in a crucial match."

Luckily, as he once again reminded us in an impromptu appearance at a press conference in Qatar on Monday, he still feels "bulletproof".

However, Ronaldo's come under more fire than ever before in recent weeks, having first refused to come on a sub in Manchester United’s Premier League win over Tottenham on October 19, and then darted down the tunnel before the game had even finished.

Ronaldo’s behaviour was both unprofessional and utterly unacceptable. He was rightly castigated for completely overshadowing his team’s best performance of the season so far.

And yet there was no apology, only an admission of sorts. Ronaldo accepted in a roundabout way that he had, in "the heat of the moment", made a couple of poor decisions.

An even bigger one followed, though, with the forward revealing in an astonishing interview with Piers Morgan that he had no respect for United boss Erik ten Hag.

It was such an ill-advised move that even Rio Ferdinand admitted he could no longer defend his former team-mate's actions.

His intention was clear: to force United into releasing him from his contract. And he got his wish on Tuesday night.

There was widespread shock at how badly Ronaldo has handled his exit, disbelief that a renowned perfectionist with a carefully crafted image had erred so badly in the eyes of his adoring public.

Indeed, that a player worshipped like a god by so many across the world had shown himself to be human after all.

Ronaldo's reaction wasn't at all surprising, though. He's thrown tantrums in the past; he'll likely do so again in the future. However, there is one big difference this time.

There is a level of frustration on show here that Ronaldo has never exhibited before. And it's easy to understand why. Ronaldo's character has been questioned on plenty of previous occasions, but never his value to a team.

For the first time in his career, a side is quite clearly better with him on the bench than in the starting line-up. An acrimonious exit after just over 18 months wasn't how his glorious return to United was supposed to pan out, and that clearly hurts.

But what really stings is that he knew he needed to get out of Old Trafford during the summer, and yet didn't receive a single concrete offer from one of Europe's elite.

The striker's very specific services are no longer required at any top club – a hammer blow for such a sizable ego.

However, failing to secure a transfer didn't just dash his hopes of playing Champions League football this season; it also threw his preparations for his final World Cup into disarray.

Of course, Ronaldo remains an impressive physical specimen, but there is serious concern in Portugal that Ronaldo will arrive in Qatar lacking match sharpness. Indeed, his place in the Seleccao's starting line-up is even a topic of debate back home.

"Less Ronaldo, more Portugal" read the headline of A Bola ahead of September's Nations League meeting with Spain.

As Maurizio Sarri once pointed during his short spell in charge of Juventus, when you have Ronaldo in your squad, you're obliged to build a team around him.

"We have a champion who sometimes creates a problem for you but solves 100 of them," he told Sky Sport Italia. "The rest of the team has to revolve around him."

However, as they have belatedly realised at Old Trafford, focusing on one individual is not always good for the group.

Particularly when the goals begin to dry up. Ronaldo scored just once in the Premier League this season, and has struck only twice in his last nine outings for Portugal.

Of course, the five-time Ballon d'Or winner should still lead the Seleccao attack in Thursday's clash with Ghana, though his case has been undeniably strengthened by Diogo Jota's injury-enforced absence and Joao Felix's rotten situation at Atletico Madrid.

As well as his physical condition, though, his mental state will also be fascinating. After all, Bruno Fernandes hardly looked pleased to see his United team-mate when they were reunited at international level, while Joao Cancelo appeared to want little to do with the Seleccao skipper.

Despite the almost constant success he has enjoyed during two decades at the pinnacle of his profession, Ronaldo has always had to deal with criticism – and nearly always done so impeccably, silencing naysayers and doubters in the best possible fashion: by scoring goals, and lots of them.

However, it's a gross misconception that he is impervious to flak; that it doesn't sometimes get to him.

He has, of course, previously dismissed negative appraisals from former team-mates in typically cocksure fashion: “If you’re in a school and you’re the best student, you ask the worst student if he likes the best, they’ll say they don’t like him.

“I win everything, so am I going to be worried about the people who say bad things about me? I sleep well at night. Keep going with that [criticism] because I will still shut mouths and win things.”

However, always having to defend oneself takes its toll, even on someone like Ronaldo.

"Critics see me as a person who can never have problems or concerns, who can’t be sad," hetold El Pais. "People think you can’t have problems with money. How can Cristiano be sad if he has all those millions?

"I get tired because it seems that every year I must prove myself to be very strong. It is difficult. There comes a moment when you say: 'Listen, leave me alone.'"

Ronaldo has endured several such moments during the past month, which is hardly ideal given he is now set to step back into the most intense spotlight in sport.

The eyes of the world will be trained on him when he takes to the field at Doha's Stadium 974 and he will be under intense pressure to produce performances befitting his iconic status.

Ronaldo, remember, has not enjoyed anything like as much success at the World Cup as he would have liked.

This will be a record-equalling fifth tournament appearance, but his first remains his most successful in terms of results, with Portugal reaching the semis in 2006.

The Seleccao haven’t made it past the last 16 since, though, and suffered a humiliating first-round exit in 2014.

Ronaldo, in fairness, has struck seven times at the World Cup, including a hat-trick against Spain last time out.

Still, brilliant as he was that night in Sochi – and it was a privilege to be there – one can be sure that Ronaldo will not want to be remembered for a group game.

In reality, he has nothing left to prove. He is a European champion, at both club and international level. However, given the nature of the man, and his ego, he will undoubtedly be determined to make the very most of his final appearance at the World Cup.

He knows he’s under more scrutiny than ever before. The critics are waiting for him to mess up. Their rifles are pointed at him once again.

We're about to find out if Ronaldo really is bulletproof.