Of all the world’s athletes, only Cristiano Ronaldo would have the cheek to try to upstage the final week of a World Cup he is no longer part of.
But credit to him – he managed it.
On Tuesday afternoon, Ronaldo announced that after years of threats to do so, he has finally decided to leave Real Madrid. The news was released a few hours before France defeated Belgium 1-0 to advance to Sunday’s World Cup final in Moscow.
The Spanish club made it clear that the parting is not its choice. Ronaldo’s €112-million ($172-million) move to Italy’s Juventus happened “at the will and the request of the player,” Real said in a statement.
There was no rush to make this official. European clubs will not begin their season for more than a month. After bombing out of Russia 2018 in the first knockout phase, Ronaldo is currently off on holiday.
It could very easily have waited until next week.
But that would not be the Ronaldo way. No sportsman alive is more aware of his ability to draw attention, and there may be none in history who is more willing to exert that authority. His showman’s instincts make P.T. Barnum look shy and retiring.
Although not enough to overshadow the actual soccer that followed, Ronaldo’s decision added a major wrinkle to it. What had been just a game – if an enormously important one – was now also a sort of audition.
Real is the biggest sporting concern on Earth. It has just been robbed of its main attraction in humiliating fashion. Replacing Ronaldo’s goal-scoring ability is its second-biggest concern. Being seen to acquire a player or players with something near his star power is job No. 1.
Lionel Messi would fit the bill best, but he is as likely to leave Barcelona for its bitterest enemy as you are to quit your job to join the space program.
Money will not be a deterrent in Real’s search. In fact, the bigger the price tag, the better. The one way Real can embarrass Ronaldo in the short term is by buying someone who costs a lot more.
Several of the participants in the France-Belgium match will have been aware, if remotely, that they were suddenly well-positioned to distinguish themselves in that regard. Careers have been made off one great game at the World Cup – especially one near the end.
Belgium has several potential candidates for Real’s suddenly available opening, prime among them Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne. Neither is currently for sale at any price (which means they are absolutely, positively for sale if we are talking notable-stake-in-Google money rather than the usual yacht-with-two-helicopter-pads money – and if the player agrees to help the move along by beginning an epic sulk).
The most covetable human asset of all was lined up on the other side of the field. The only player who can reliably salve Real’s hurt feelings right now is French teenager Kylian Mbappé.
He is a generational talent whose generation hasn’t yet arrived. In today’s instalment of “How old do you feel? How about this old?” Mbappé was born after France won the 1998 World Cup.
Mbappé is not normally a showy player. On Tuesday, perhaps coincidentally, he decided to turn over his bag of tricks and empty it out on the field.
There were little backheels to trailing players. He skipped over defenders when he could have gone around them. He bulled his way up the field repeatedly when he could have passed.
Every time he got the ball, you could see a little neon sign flashing over his head: “Pick me!”
The Belgians grew so annoyed at his skills clinic that by the end they had started lashing out at him. Mbappé continued cheerily on with it.
On the other side of the ball, Hazard decided now was the right time to assert himself. He has followed in De Bruyne’s estimable wake most of this tournament, which was good news for Belgium.
But now, like Mbappé, Hazard no longer seemed much interested in giving up the ball unless it was to slot the perfect pass through traffic.
With Hazard enjoying so much possession, De Bruyne faded from view. Belgium picked the wrong time to develop a traditionally English problem: featuring two great players in the middle who each want to do the same thing at the same time.
Meanwhile, their supercharged cement truck of a forward, Romelu Lukaku, was receiving the sort of service you’d expect to get by shouting English in a Parisian café. For the first time in the tournament, Lukaku was a non-factor.
If things were breaking down up top, the overall technique on display was, on aggregate, the best yet seen in Russia. This was often immovable-object-meets-irresistible-force stuff. All the game lacked for status as a classic was a few goals.
The real standouts were the supporting actors – the goalkeepers and defenders.
The game’s only tally came from the head of French centre-back Samuel Umtiti from a corner.
Sadly for Umtiti, he is not under consideration for a post-Ronaldo jackpot because of the position he plays. He didn’t seem all that concerned.
Like any game of this import, there were talking points. The one that will consume the most oxygen was an uncalled and obvious foul on Hazard a foot or two from the edge of the French penalty area late in the game. What might he have done with that one? Hazard will be wondering about it years from now.
However, it would be hard to argue the result was unfair. France will go into Sunday’s final against either England or Croatia as the prohibitive favourite.
As it ended, Mbappé was freed several times to lope up the field toward the skeleton staff Belgium had left in the back. He didn’t seem of a mind to do much once he got there except swan around looking elegant.
After one unnecessary flourish, Belgium’s Toby Alderweireld reached out in frustration and slapped him gently across the head. Mbappé crumpled and began to roll about in pretend agony.
And all the suits and money guys back at Real HQ in Madrid will have been thinking, “See? He even looks just like him when he’s lying down!”