Cristiano Ronaldo gambles on World Cup to restore reputation

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Not for the first time, Cristiano Ronaldo is trusting himself to deliver on the big stage.

A man of seemingly boundless self-belief is struggling to accept the effects of age and banking on the World Cup to launch a glorious final act to his remarkable career.

His explosive interview with Piers Morgan this week has set the stage for a make-or-break few weeks for the 37-year-old Portugal forward and left him with little room to maneuver if it goes wrong.

It’s quite the gamble. But for Ronaldo, who has written his own story in a trophy-laden career, it’s unlikely failure has even been considered.

He has very deliberately ensured the focus is on him in Qatar by waging a public war with Manchester United and putting himself on the market.

The question is whether it is a case of self-belief or self-delusion.

On the evidence of his performances on the field this season, reality has hit him hard. The burst of speed appears to have gone. The energy levels are not the same. And, perhaps most shockingly, that cutting edge just isn’t there.

Of United’s 21 games this season, Ronaldo has been involved in 16 of them and scored only three goals.

Two of those goals were against Moldovan club Sheriff FC in the Europa League — one a penalty. The other was a winner against Everton and marked the 700th of his club career.

Despite the milestone he achieved with that goal in the Premier League, those statistics provide little in the way of evidence that he is about to make an emphatic statement at the World Cup. But to hear him in that interview, it’s clear Ronaldo believes he has been underused and ill-deployed by United manager Erik ten Hag.

The World Cup is his chance to prove that point, because if he carries his club form into the tournament it’s hard to know where he will turn up next.

Even on the back of 24 goals last season he couldn’t secure a move to one of Europe’s leading clubs and there is little to suggest the picture has changed now. His willingness to call out his manager, owners and other players on international TV might make it hard for Ronaldo to attract suitors when the January transfer window opens.

Whether a challenge for the Golden Boot as top scorer in Qatar and a deep run for Portugal would change that remains to be seen. But it is surely his only chance of prolonging his career in elite soccer.

“Maybe it’s good for Manchester and probably is good for me as well to have a new chapter,” he told TalkTV.

The Premier League club responded by saying it had “initiated appropriate steps” following his actions. The termination of his contract is a possible outcome.

Even as a free agent, Ronaldo’s reported salary of about 500,000 pounds ($590,000) per week presents a considerable hurdle for other interested clubs. That’s why it’s so important for him to provide evidence he can still deliver at the highest level.

Yet Ronaldo’s off-field actions have proved more noteworthy. None more so than that interview with Morgan, where he came across as a grumpy old man blaming just about everyone else for his failure to make himself the centerpoint of a team — and possibly a sport — that is moving forward without him.

“It’s the new coaches that are coming around,” he said. “They think they find the last Coca-Cola in the desert.”

That analogy only fed the impression that he — a five-time Ballon d’Or winner who has won five Champions League titles and seven league titles in three different countries — is increasingly a player who is out of touch with the modern game.

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AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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James Robson is at https://twitter.com/jamesalanrobson

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