USA TODAY Sports’ Martin Rogers takes us along while he explores Russia on a day in which there was no action in the World Cup.
USA TODAY Sports
MOSCOW — Cristiano Ronaldo’s World Cup ended Saturday in Sochi with a loss of control, a cuss word screamed into the face of the referee, and the pent-up frustration of not being able to have everything.
Four hours earlier in Kazan, Lionel Messi’s campaign came to a close too, with a shake of the head, confusion as to where it all went wrong, and the unfamiliar feeling of not being good enough for once.
Soccer’s two standout stars saw their attempt to win the big one, the greatest prize in the sport, come crashing to a halt. Not just for this year, but probably for good.
Each of them have had a career that is the stuff of dreams, with riches and celebrity (one embraces it, the other tolerates it), and trophy cabinets laden with glittering chalices that give testament to their brilliance.
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Yet each man reserved a space, both in the cabinet and his heart, for the World Cup, and it will now surely be a hole that remains unfulfilled. No one is going to feel too sorry for them, for theirs is a unique kind of sting that mere mortals of sports never get to feel.
Players who have found glory at every turn, whether in soccer or any other discipline, have an inherent sense of believing they can do anything, that no task or goal or accomplishment is beyond them. It is what makes them great and keeps them striving despite already being the best, but it is also what makes days like this hurt like hell.
For Ronaldo and Messi, each was burdened with a team that wasn’t as good and wasn’t as collective as the one it came up against in the Round of 16. France was too deep, too strong, too focused and fearless and ultimately resilient for Argentina, even after Messi enjoyed a slice of fortune when his goalbound effort deflected off Gabriel Mercado to put the team ahead.
Ronaldo’s Portugal might have been the reigning European champion; however, it had holes and softness in various positions and found that Uruguay’s perfect record during the group stage was no accident. No goals for Ronaldo, meaning he has never scored in the knockout round at a World Cup, and even if he gets another chance, it won’t be until he is 37.
Curiously, Messi shares the same stat, though he has gone further in the tournament, reaching the final in 2014 and being named that event’s finest player.
He wasn’t the finest player in the game on Saturday, outshone handsomely by France’s precocious and rapid footed 19-year-old Kylian Mbappe, who won an early penalty then scored twice to seal a 4-3 triumph and a place in the quarterfinal.
Ronaldo found a superior foe on the day as well, with Edinson Cavani firing both Uruguay’s goals, courtesy of a well-timed header to finish an excellent move, then a gorgeous curling effort in the second half, before hobbling off injured.
Ronaldo lost not only the game but also his cool. As the 90th minute ticked over he went on one of his twinkling runs and threatened danger, only to slice a wild effort comically wide of the target after it splayed off the side of his foot. Then he was bellowing into the official’s face, unjustly as it turned out for Ricardo Quaresma didn’t deserve the free-kick Ronaldo was demanding, having dived amid scant contact. The yellow card Ronaldo received meant he would have missed the quarterfinal anyways, even if a miracle had been forthcoming.
It wasn’t, and it hadn’t been for Messi either, despite a fine late ball that Sergio Aguero nodded home to add at least some tension to the last few moments. Too little, too late.
And too late for both of them when it comes to World Cups. They have each had four cracks at it now, and Argentina in 2014 aside, have never gotten with touching distance.
It is not a criticism or particularly much of a failure, even considering the remarkably lofty standards they have set for themselves. Countless great players never won the World Cup, and they lived with it.
It is merely an emptiness, and a quirk of sorts. Given that it’s so rare we find two all-time greats in the same era it therefore seems peculiar that neither one of them will hoist that elusive trophy. It is just as well. While the World Cup embraces star power, it doesn’t depend on it. The event will miss Ronaldo and Messi, but not too much.
Theirs is a pain they will carry with them because their ego, even that of the quieter Messi, demands it. If they were the type to be satisfied with falling short, ever, they wouldn’t be the Ronaldo and Messi that we know.