Ronaldo, Portugal wilt in the World Cup
SALVADOR, Brazil -- An hour before Thomas Muller turned Iberia into ham -- slicing the Portuguese defense, roasting it, even glazing it -- one of the smiling, blue-shirted workers at the Arena Fonte Nova walked down press row and handed out a prophecy in 48-point font. "No cooling breaks will be implemented during this match," the FIFA-issued sheet of paper read. It referred to the midgame breathers triggered in Brazil whenever the on-field temperature exceeds 89.6 degrees Fahrenheit. I looked at a thermometer; it read 84. Mercury had no idea that for Portugal, Salvador would soon feel like the surface of the sun.
Where do you start with a nonstop incineration such as this? Where do you start with a 4-0 score that is, in the eyes of anyone who watched this lopsided sweat-fest, still far too generous to the loser? In the course of 90 minutes, Germany established themselves as cool, clinical and extremely German and wasted no time proving itself the dominant team in this World Cup. Portugal, on the other hand, once a would-be power, had a United Nations worth of journalists looking up antonyms for dominant (impotent? submissive? unimportant?) within 36 minutes.
By the 37th minute, Portugal defender Pepe -- who requires no meteorological assistance in the world of self-immolation -- did win something this afternoon, technically: a red card. And though the match transcript will officially record the reason as "fighting," reality was even less fulfilling than that. A fairly transparent flop by Muller had left the German wunderkind sitting on the ground and rubbing the phantom pain in his jaw. Pepe not so much head-butted as nuzzled him like a lioness, but nevertheless bumped a human skull in front of a crowd of 51,081 and much of planet Earth. From her VIP box 15 feet below me, where she'd been double-fist-pumping next to FIFA president Sepp Blatter and UEFA president Michael Platini, German chancellor Angela Merkel looked like she was about to jump off the top rope.
Of course, her country needed no such assistance. Muller's first goal occurred when Pepe's mate on the back line, Joao Pereira, pulled down opposing forward Mario Goetze by his left elbow, which put Muller front and center for a 12th-minute penalty kick. But it's never good when that isn't even the most egregious defensive error in a span of less than five minutes. The first German scoring opportunity had consisted of Portuguese goaltender Rui Patricio leaving his station undefended, inexplicably, and passing the ball into the middle of the box -- to Sami Khedira. The German midfielder missed wide left -- maybe the only notable mistake by Die Mannschaft -- but by this point everyone kind of knew where this was headed.
In the heat, Portuguese forward Hugo Almeida pulled up lame and limped off the field in the 27th minute, to be replaced by the little-known Eder. In the 65th, another starting defender, Fabio Coentrao, was replaced by Andre Almeida, also due to a leg injury. In between, we watched Germany do whatever they wanted: enjoy wide halos of empty space downfield, pass diagonally at will, score a goal thanks to the head of Mats Hummels on a 32nd-minute corner, and send another into the net right before halftime, thanks to Muller's paranormal left foot. The 24-year-old Muller scored his third goal of the game in the 78th minute, and it earned him both an early exit and a standing ovation from an arena that had once sounded Portuguese.
Portugal, you might recall, had been widely reputed to be a one-man team -- the one being the most prolific scorer in Champions League history, Cristiano Ronaldo. But this afternoon, really, that number was zero. For all his talent, Ronaldo, ostensibly bothered by some combination of a balky left leg and Jerome Boateng, was too often forced to run backward and defend, like a captain throwing water out of a rowboat with a bucket without a bottom. Before the first half was over, Ronaldo was hunched over and grabbing his shorts, with two of his typically immaculately gelled tendrils flopping over his forehead. In the second half, when two of his teammates straight-up ran into each other as they chased the same ball in the box and set their latest scoring opportunity aflame in the midday sun, Ronaldo walked away while shaking his head, like a father who'd just watched his sons eat glue.
Now Ronaldo & Co. head back to their training facility in Sao Paulo to join Spain as all of Iberia officially finds itself on a spit and feeling unimaginable heat. Come Sunday, a Pepe-less Portugal will voyage into Manaus -- which is, as you might have heard, in the Amazon -- to face a United States team that, like the local marine life there, should smell blood. The thermometers will supposedly reach 86 degrees in the rainforest. Portugal is hoping beyond hope to catch a break.