In 2008, soon after his 23rd birthday and still playing for Manchester United, Cristiano Ronaldo broke George Best’s 40-year-old record for the English first division of 32 goals in a season from the winger position. At the time, it was difficult to imagine how he could ever age, or what he would look like in his 30s. But he’s 33 now, and this is how 2018 started for him.
It was another goal drought, another spate of lingering poor form that seemed to suggest that the self-described “best player in history” is not, by a long shot, the destroyer of worlds that he once was. That’s sort of true. Gone are the days of those mind-bending, slaloming runs from half. He’s less springy now, and less of a central attacking presence than he used to be. His touch, on the occasional afternoon, goes missing; the frosted tips read, more often, as a sad attempt to reclaim lost youth. I would say “washed”—I’ve said “washed”— but only because it’s the most apt word I can think of for this sort of transaction between age and physical decline. You can’t be cool and all-powerful forever, and that realization can be exacting.
Take, for instance, the start of last year’s Champions League final. It was the first half in Cardiff, and Ronaldo looked enviously at Juventus’s Mario Mandzukic, who briefly morphed into Misty Copeland to bang in an overhead kick from forever away and put the Italian side up 1-0 against the run of play. “Mario Mandzukic,” Ronaldo scoffed to himself, I imagine. “That, to me, is a dog’s name.” Never to be outdone, Ronaldo then attempted an acrobatic overhead kick of his own. He missed, we all had a good laugh about it, and Madrid still ended up winning 4-1.
You VS the guy she tells you not to worry about pic.twitter.com/zGca79rrHK— Mexican GBE Leader (@vuhsace) June 3, 2017
So, yes, Ronaldo is, fairly obviously, not what he once was.
That doesn’t mean he can’t still impose himself on a game. That he isn’t still unfair. Ronaldo went to Turin for the first leg of Madrid’s Champions League quarterfinal tie against Juventus on Tuesday and put his feet up on the Old Lady’s desk, bagging two goals. First a header, then a backbreaker. The home fans could only applaud:
Let’s break that “unfair” down a little. It was a vintage Madrid performance in that the scoreline didn’t fairly reflect the exchanges of the actual game, which turned largely on confounding individual efforts, like that save from Keylor Navas or Paulo Dybala planting a boot in Dani Carvajal’s chest. Moreover, there was the creeping sense of an invisible hand tipping the cosmic scales in their favor. What are the chances that Giorgio Chiellini and Gigi Buffon—who have a telepathic link, based on all available evidence—conspire to flub a clearance so poorly? What are you even supposed to do with something like that?
yo Zizu's reaction says it all. what a ridiculous goal. pic.twitter.com/jl5e2u7TfY— amadí (@amadoit__) April 3, 2018
There are any number of reasons that this shouldn’t have come off. But those are the moments most worth watching and rewatching until your brain dissolves into dust or you begin to understand how it could have happened in the first place.
I mean, look at how high he got. Cristiano Ronaldo is 33 years old now. I wonder what he’ll look like in his 40s.
An earlier version of this piece misstated the score in Tuesday’s Real Madrid–Juventus match; Madrid won 3-0, not 3-1.