Ken Early: Maybe Ireland should be honoured to act as cannon fodder for Ronaldo

A whole new chapter in his career could start with breaking international scoring record

Cristiano Ronaldo during Portugal training in Lisbon on Tuesday. If he scores against the Republic of Ireland  on Wednesday he will become the leading scorer in the history of international football. Photograph: Rodrigo Antunes/EPA

Cristiano Ronaldo during Portugal training in Lisbon on Tuesday. If he scores against the Republic of Ireland on Wednesday he will become the leading scorer in the history of international football. Photograph: Rodrigo Antunes/EPA

 

“#OnThisDay in 1969, Pele scored his 1000th goal with a penalty for Santos against Vasco da Gama,” reads a tweet from @BBCMOTD, the official Match of the Day account. “The Vasco goalkeeper responded by taking off his jersey to reveal a shirt underneath with a message congratulating Pele on his achievement.”

Did he really? It’s hard to find corroborating evidence for this remarkable claim. Most accounts of the game note similar key details. To mark the historic moment, Pele’s Santos team-mates stood back to watch the penalty from the half-way line rather than the edge of the box. The Vasco home crowd seem to have been delighted by this particular goal against their team – the match was suspended for 20 minutes to allow a celebratory pitch invasion. Afterwards, Pele told reporters: “For the love of God, people, now that everyone is listening, help the children, help the helpless. That’s my only wish at this very special time for me.”

And what of the Vasco goalkeeper, the Argentine Edgardo Andrada, known as “El Gato” for his feline reflexes? He seems to have been the only unhappy man in the stadium. When you watch the footage of the penalty, you can see him beating the ground with frustration as Pele rushes past him to grab the ball.

“I never wanted to save anything as much as I did that penalty,” he is quoted in Ben Lyttleton’s history of penalties, Twelve Yards. “I was distraught,” he is elsewhere reported to have said. “I didn’t want to be that goalkeeper.”

Years later, Andrada would be accused of having participated in a paramilitary terrorist unit that carried out brutal atrocities against enemies of the Argentine dictatorship in the late 1970s. All things considered, it seems unlikely that he was the type to pull off his jersey to reveal a “Well Done Big Man” message to Pele.

So why did the Match of the Day account, and most of the replies, believe that this might really have happened? Maybe because from the perspective of today it does seem quite plausible. Did you see the Reims goalkeeper asking Messi for a picture with his son while they were still out on the pitch after their match on Sunday night? It now seems normal that all pretence of decorum can be abandoned before that insane level of celebrity.

Cameo role

And so to the Estádio Algarve. Circumstance has thrust Stephen Kenny’s Ireland into a surprise cameo role in the sports entertainment story of the year. Ireland are photobombing Return of the King week. Better yet, CR7’s next international goal will break Ali Daei’s world record of 109 international goals. Ireland have the honour to act as cannon fodder. Sporting immortality awaits the likely goalkeeper Gavin Bazunu, if only he can concede goal number 110. If he reacts to that concession by pulling off his Ireland jersey to show “Viva Ronaldo #Legend” or the equivalent written on his vest, there might be a minority that cries foul – “Wait, what?” – but most people will applaud. “Not an Ireland fan but that is class.”

There might still be some Irish who bridle at the notion that we are here to serve as extras in someone else’s plotline – “we’re not here to take part” and all that. Look, at least we get to take part. The chance to be posterised by Ronaldo is a privilege when objective reality itself is a mere passive spectator at the Second Coming. When Ronaldo’s Instagram message confirming his switch to United ended with the words “PS Sir Alex – this one is for you”, the global United fanbase blasted off into a kind of pure dream rapture beyond the reach of earthly reason or doubt.

“History has been written in the past and history will be written once again! You have my word!” Ronaldo said on Instagram. Even the phrasing shows how this relentless champion never stops learning. In 2019 he promised “Juventus will win the Champions League” with him in the team. Too specific. The wily gladiator now knows to keep his exhortations inspirational yet vague. History will be written. Who dares to prove him wrong?

Euphoria

The sentimental euphoria surrounding Ronaldo’s “homecoming” reminds you of another nostalgic sports entertainment supernova back in 2012, when Thierry Henry returned to Arsenal on loan from New York Red Bulls, and came on at the Emirates in an FA Cup match against Leeds, and scored his goal one more time.

Henry was bearded and a little thicker in the body but otherwise it was just like the old days – coming in from the left, opening the body, curling the finish into the far corner – and Arsenal got to cheer that goal one more time. The difference is they understood that what they were watching was not really the beginning of a new story, but rather an unexpected and impossibly romantic moment of closure – like Patrick Swayze appearing to Demi Moore one last time before he goes to heaven in Ghost.

Ronaldo is two years older now than old man Henry was then, but expectations in sports entertainment have inflated in line with star salaries. Billions worldwide expect him to deliver a whole new career chapter in which he challenges for the game’s biggest titles. It starts with claiming the world record against Ireland on Wednesday night. The demands of the narrative are sadly at odds with Ireland’s fragile dream of World Cup qualification. But at least we can say “we were there!”

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