Cristiano Ronaldo exits in frustration
The damage was already done but that did not ease the disappointment. This was supposed to be the World Cup in which Cristiano Ronaldo reached his peak. Instead, it was his worst yet.
When Russia 2018 comes around, Ronaldo will be 33, with 15 arduous years at the top behind him. He might now have to accept that 2006, when he was but 21, was his golden month at the global showpiece. He has not gotten any worse as a player, but is entitled to feel aggrieved about the ever-dwindling talent that he must perform alongside. Without him, Portugal would not have been in Brazil, but even with him, they were not good enough to survive longer than three matches.
Few winning goals will be celebrated as sourly as Ronaldo's in Brasilia. Ghana were beaten, but then so, already, were Portugal.
"We created many opportunities but we could not finish them," Ronaldo said postmatch after making a slow, pronounced limp to the rostrum to deliver some short words. His only smile was to a flashing camera as he received the man-of-the-match award. "We knew we had to score three goals and were depending on the result of the Germany game and we couldn't do that.
"We deserved more but that's football. We are leaving with our heads held high," he concluded, looking anything but proud of his team's achievements.
Now, he can only look on as both Lionel Messi and Neymar, on four goals each, travel deep into the tournament while he departs with just a single goal scored in a lost cause. After the superhuman efforts of 2013, including his playoff devastation of Sweden to power Portugal to Brazil, the last year of his 20s looks like a climbdown from the peak that reclaimed him the Ballon d'Or after the wait that so pained him.
Winning the Champions League in Lisbon might have sated some, but there has never been any doubt about Ronaldo's pursuit of individual honours. Were Messi or Neymar to win the World Cup, he has no hope of keeping his most prized possession for a second successive year.
He tried his level best in Brazil, but was always fighting the knee problem that has hampered him since April, and was a leading factor in his poor performance in that Lisbon final.
There were accusations among the press contingent that Ronaldo's scoring only one of five chances against Ghana was the cause of Portugal's exit but football is never so simple. A less obvious but more valid truth is that none of his colleagues are capable of getting into the positions he found in the first place. Eder, a man mountain with the turning circle of a tugboat, is not even close to the required quality, and looked a hopeless foil for his captain.
Hugo Almeida's worthiest contribution to the tournament ended up being the magnificent moustache he sported in his sole appearance before he succumbed to injury. His loss was only felt in the sense that it meant that Eder would play instead.
Such is the paucity of quality around him that Ronaldo, for all his ailments, was regularly found foraging in the deep, due to a lack of decent service from all but the ever dependable Joao Moutinho. Despite the heroics of both Neymar and Messi, the World Cup is no place for a one-man team; even Diego Maradona's 1986 triumph was supported ably by lieutenants like Jorge Valdano, Jorge Burruchaga and Jose Luis Brown.
Though he often comes in for significant criticism, the loss of Real colleague Fabio Coentrao during the Germany disaster was a huge blow to Paulo Bento's game plan. The overlapping full-back's runs from deep often create space for Ronaldo to devastate from. On the other flank, Nani has been out of form for so long his flashes of brilliance are now a distant memory and few players will exit Brazil having been so wasteful of possession in promising positions; Ronaldo's exasperation with his former Manchester United clubmate is barely concealed.
How he must wistfully recall the days of Euro 2004 and Germany 2006, where he was a young pup alongside players of the class of Luis Figo, Deco and Rui Costa. Portugal never had decent strikers then, either, but at least there were others to take on the burden.
In truth, the die for eventual failure was cast by that horrendous opening performance against the Germans in Salvador. As Bento said in Brasilia, "It became a huge handicap."
Ronaldo, barely fit, was a bystander to the car crashes taking place around him. Meanwhile, the assist for Silvestre Varela's equaliser in Manaus against the U.S. was akin to a high-performance vehicle creaking into gear after being mothballed in a garage for a year. He still knew what to do, but his contribution could only be fleeting.
Though he had recovered more of his old self by the Ghana game, it was still not nearly enough. It is unlikely he will remember Brazil 2014 fondly. He departs a stage set for his greatest rivals.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.