We all sat agog on Tuesday night and asked the same couple of questions - just how do sports people retire gracefully; and, has anyone ever done a worse job of it than Cristiano Ronaldo?
Messi and Ronaldo are the men that football just can’t quit. For all of Kylian Mbappé's brilliance, for all of Jude Bellingham’s precocity, the same two names are still the black holes of attention from which no other footballer can emerge. It will take Mbappé doing a Maradona ‘86 over the course of the next 10 days to change that now.
Messi is in a far inferior team. But his teammates love him, and want to win so badly for him that every Argentina game at this World Cup is weighed down by an almost unbearable, over-wrought tension.
Ronaldo arrived in Qatar having tried (successfully, as it turned out) to blow up his club career with Manchester United. He’s looked angry and full of wounded pride for the last six months. Given the chance to finally play without carrying him around on Tuesday night, the Portuguese players frolicked like spring lambs.
They’re both old, they’re both slow, they’re both shadows of the players they were. None of that should be news. But one of them seems genuinely surprised to have to deal with it.
And it goes without saying that every sports person (every person!) has to deal with it. I struggle to think of any GAA player who has so comprehensively trashed their own reputation as they left centre-stage as Ronaldo has done over the last month.
The most distressing thing about the entire pathetic Piers Morgan episode was the realisation that Morgan might be the closest thing to a friend Ronaldo has in his life. But it’s perhaps a little too easy to say that no GAA player could so completely isolate himself from people who both love them, and speak truth to them.
It’s true that no GAA player will ever earn enough money to be able to shield themselves away from the slightest word of criticism. But that’s not to say that there is no such thing as a cult of personality that doesn’t build up around the greats. And as a manager there’s no easy way to move those players on, or to make them come to the conclusion you want them to come to, without expressly saying it.
I know of one multiple All Star winning forward, who as he moved into his mid-thirties was presented by an incoming intercounty manager with a proposition which the new man thought could be mutually beneficial – that he become an impact substitute. His reply? “Well, let me be the first to congratulate you on winning next year’s All-Ireland. Because if you’ve six better forwards than me lined up, there’ll be no beating ye.”
Handling the last act of great players comes freighted with danger. Cut him or her loose in your first week on the job and you may make a powerful enemy. Give the old master a few games in the league, while trying to freeze him out at training, and he could turn the entire dressing-room against you. Carry her with you, but drop her at a key moment in the season, and you create a distraction that could come to define your entire period in charge.
How will new Cork hurling manager Pat Ryan handle the last years of Patrick Horgan’s magnificent Cork career, for example? He is the greatest score-getter in the history of the game. But he didn’t start the last game of Cork’s season last year, against Galway. That decision drew all the pre-game headlines. The cameras were focused on him as Conor Lehane and then Mark Coleman missed scoreable frees in the first half of that game. Horgan came on at half-time and scored four points. Where does that leave him this winter?
He has nothing left to prove to anyone. He’s outscored Keher, Carey, Canning, and Shefflin, and everyone else. But his presence in the dressing-room is presented almost as a problem for Ryan to unravel.
Horgan doesn’t strike you as the sort of man who’d have Piers Morgan’s number, but there was a sign of his frustration even last March with people who attempted to write him off. He put his finger to his lips as he wheeled away in celebration after scoring a goal against Galway in the league. Whoever that was aimed at, it appeared Horgan was acutely aware of chatter starting to develop – chatter that may well have included the words “impact substitute”.
Ken Early of this parish wrote on Tuesday night that if Ronaldo can just steer clear of any nuclear meltdowns, if he can just keep his mouth shut, “if he can muster the patience to refrain from any further outbursts, a chance might yet fall his way” to win the World Cup with Portugal, as the aforementioned impact substitute. We will discover if the scorpion can be convinced not to sting the frog over the coming days.
But going gentle into that good night is harder than it looks, even for those sports-people who aren’t incurably egotistical.