Cristiano Ronaldo exits the World Cup, with one burst of speed before bursting into tears  

It perhaps lasted three seconds, Cristiano Ronaldo conjured a vision from the past. He gestured where the pass should be, he burst past the defenders into the box, emerged into the desert air, his perfectly gelled hair in place, and his right foot, where the footballing world lay for years, crashing down on the ball. For those three blurry seconds, the world saw the man who would run at the defenders, blur past them, leap above them, and who seemed to play the game at a different speed than everyone else. Reality intervened in the form of the irrepressible Moroccan goalkeeper. Ronaldo’s famous wrinkles, that have sold a million products, creased his face as he winced.

In the end, as feared by many and probably longed by many too, Cristiano Ronaldo sobbed his way through the tunnel. A camera in front, another to his right broadcasting a sad private moment to gif-makers worldwide. At one turn, there was a TV placed as well and we had two Ronaldos sobbing: the real and the virtual. For a while now, the real and the apparition have looked indistinguishable on the field.

There was one other touch on Saturday night, where he again asked for the ball at his feet, turned his back to the goal, and tapped it perfectly for a Felix curler. Again, the goalie stubbed it out.

What did the footballing world see apart from those two moments: Ronaldo trying to coax his body into one of his famous leaps but these days, he feels the gravity drag as the rest of the mortals; Ronaldo tugging defender’s shirts or being pushed around as they wait for a corner; Ronaldo gesticulating frantically for someone to send the ball his way; Ronaldo standing with eyes firmly shut, head thrown back in despair; and Ronaldo’s brisk erect walk back into the tunnel. In all the years, that hasn’t changed. Only, now, it seems he can’t wait to get into the privacy of the change-room.

It’s been said that he is self-aware but not self-conscious. The tantrums at Manchester United, the sulks, the feeling of being victimised by the world – and so it came to the unthinkable. That a sports newspaper would run a poll asking if the man so loved in Portugal should start a game or not. The answer came like a sucker punch: 70% of ABola newspaper readers said he shouldn’t. We don’t know the numbers of the poll, how many voted and the rest of it, but this was a poll that newspapers all around the world carried: ‘Look, look he isn’t liked even back home’.

Who has thrown his weight around this world cup? Arguing with referees, haranguing opponents, disrespecting them even after match has ended, abusing an opponent calling him a fool on live television (the player who it turns out had come to shake hands and bury the ill-feeling on field), spraying verbal volleys gracelessly at a legendary coach in his last game?

Not Ronaldo, but the other one. Then how come the man from Portugal, whose mother wanted to abort and even took a home-made potion that proved unsuccessful, who was raised in poverty, who can hardly remember a decent conversation with his alcoholic father who would die when he was 20, gets so much ill-will? Someone on the BeIn sports channel would say on air: if you have been nice to people on your way up, you will find people being nice to you on your way down. Maybe there is something to it. Maybe not. We will never know.  But we will act as if we know.  That’s Ronaldo’s curse. He will live with it.

An unloved Messi is unthinkable. An unconditionally-loved Ronaldo is also unthinkable. What also seemed unthinkable was that Ronaldo will lose speed. That he won’t be able to leap and hang there until the ball arrives. Now, his head dips down before the ball crosses him. His hands, feet, and head seem to furiously move but without gaining time or space. Like a video buffering.

In a 2015 interview to BBC, when asked how it feels to be a global football superstar, he would say, “There is a reason for that. Because I am unbelievably good on the field, people have so much interest in me.” He would also say that he saw himself playing for 4-5  years at the best. Perhaps, he should have listened to his own estimation. But how many sporting legends realise when the time is up. They roused themselves to such starry heights only because they don’t let self-doubts fester. But now he knows how the gravity-drag feels. How being unwanted feels. What will Ronaldo do?

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