Ronaldo a true talisman for Portugal
SALVADOR, Brazil -- There are two correct responses available to managers when they are asked by the teeming unwashed masses of the media about their next opponents. Which one they deploy depends on the exact phrasing of the question.
Should a coach be asked to single out a particular player on the opposing team who he has identified as the danger man, he is -- according to strict convention -- bound to answer by saying that it would be disrespectful to specify just one, that the entire side warrants respect and admiration.
It was this code that Roy Hodgson, the England manager, broke in Miami just before the start of the World Cup, when he suggested that asking him or his players to discuss Ecuador's strengths would be akin to demanding of them what they knew of Crewe Alexandra's prospects. To admit to such ignorance was belittling his opponents. It is a cliche and an anachronism, but it is the sort of answer that might be pinned up -- in translation -- on the dressing-room wall, a source of anger and inspiration.
Should his inquisitor identify a single player for him, though, should he be asked whether the result hinges on how his team fares against Player X, his response has to be slightly altered. In this scenario, it is written in stone that he must insist that the very idea that his opponents are defined by one man is preposterous. He must dismiss the concept of the one-man team. He must claim that their entire team provides a looming menace.
Germany coach Joachim Loew offered a textbook example of this response in his first news conference of the World Cup last week. How would his team morph to counter the threat posed by Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo when they encounter the Real Madrid forward -- and reigning World Player of the Year -- in their opening game in Salvador?
"They are just behind us [in the ever-reliable FIFA World Rankings]," Loew responded. "They are not just about Ronaldo. They are an extremely dangerous team."
The thing is that this, when it comes down to it, is not true.
Portugal are not a bad team. Far from it. Their recent record in tournaments is extremely impressive, indeed. They finished as runners-up in the European championship on home soil in 2004, reached the semifinals of the World Cup two years later and, after being eliminated in the first knockout stages in 2008 and 2010, made the semifinals of Euro 2012, losing to Spain on penalties.
Under Paulo Bento, they are well-organised, defensively sound, and tactically adaptable. Loew described them as "the world champions of counterattacking," but they are just as adept -- certainly against lesser opponents -- at dominating possession and grasping a game by the throat. Loew described them as a "tough nut to crack."
However, to be more specific, they are not an "extremely dangerous" team. They are a good team, with one extremely dangerous player. How Portugal fare in Brazil is inextricably linked to how Ronaldo fares in Brazil. If he thrives, so do they. If he is below par, they will be, too.
Portugal are far from the only team in this competition to boast a talismanic player, someone on whom their fate depends. Brazil have Neymar. Argentina have Lionel Messi. Uruguay have Luis Suarez. Italy have Andrea Pirlo.
Spain, Germany and Netherlands have a more collectivist approach, but still, they will need one or two players to excel if they are to fulfil their ambitions, certainly in an attacking sense: Andres Iniesta and Xavi for Vicente del Bosque's team, Philipp Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger for Loew's team, Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben for Louis van Gaal's side.
All are capable of winning games without those players. All could probably get through the group stages, maybe even to the quarterfinals, in their absence. But to get past another elite side, to win the thing, they need their inspirational players to stand up and be counted. That is why Uruguay, as a nation, has been so preoccupied with the health of Suarez, why there is so much pressure on Messi, why Neymar's face is attached to every other billboard across Brazil.
Portugal's relationship with Ronaldo is different. He is not just the outstanding player on the team, the reference and focal point, he is the team. It has been constructed for him. It is set up to provide him with a platform to win games: a solid defence, complete with Fabio Coentrao at left-back to make those overlapping runs when his Real Madrid teammate drifts inside.
The midfield consists of William Carvalho, a lavishly gifted water-carrier, the energetic Raul Meireles and Joao Moutinho, the creative force. The first two win the ball and carry it forward, the third gives it to Ronaldo.
Then there is the attack of Nani, most often used as no more than a decoy, and Helder Postiga, a player who is that rarest of things in the modern game: a poacher. His job is to snaffle the rebounds from Ronaldo's shots, to tap in his cutbacks.
The whole team is set up, first and foremost, to get the best out of Ronaldo, and then to profit from his brilliance. No other team in this tournament -- not even Argentina -- is constructed in quite the same way.
"One-man team" is a dirty phrase in football's lexicon. In a sport that lionises and cherishes and exalts its stars, the term "one-man team" is used as a criticism, an insult. Being a one-man team is a sign of weakness. It makes your achievements seem somehow lesser, almost false.
And yet it should not be. That tournament in 2004 marked the end of Portugal's golden generation, the team that first shot to fame by winning consecutive world youth championships in 1989 and 1991. There were many stars in that side, but the three standouts were Luis Figo, Rui Costa and Pauleta. Figo was a winger of prodigious brilliance, Rui Costa a sublime playmaker, Pauleta a dead-eyed finisher.
Ronaldo is all three combined. That is not meant as a slight to those players -- especially from someone who rates two of them as two of his favourites of all time -- but as praise for Ronaldo. He is the sort of player a nation, especially one as comparatively small as Portugal, produces once every two generations. He is certainly the second-best player the country has ever had. Whether he is ahead of Eusebio is a matter of personal taste.
It is not to Portugal's detriment that they have built their side around Ronaldo. It should be to their credit. He is special. They are but the supporting actors. He is the star.
Rory Smith is a columnist for ESPN FC and The Times. Follow him on Twitter @RorySmithTimes.