Costa Rica
Match 25
Game Details
LIVE 15'
Match 24
Game Details
6:00 PM UTC
Match 26
Game Details
12:00 PM UTC Jun 23, 2018
Match 29
Game Details
South Korea
6:00 PM UTC Jun 23, 2018
Match 28
Game Details
3:00 PM UTC Jun 23, 2018
Match 27
Game Details

Cristiano Ronaldo at 32: What else does he have left to accomplish?

Cristiano Ronaldo has won everything there is to win except for the World Cup. Is that his final frontier?

It is said that toward the end of his impressive career, having subjected almost all of the known world to his will, Alexander the Great broke down in tears as there were no more worlds to conquer.

Such thoughts may have entered the mind of another all-conquering champion, Cristiano Ronaldo, after a 2016 in which he won the Champions League with Madrid, the Euro 2016 trophy with Portugal and at least 16 different individual awards including a fourth career Ballon d'Or and the first ever The Best FIFA Men's Player trophy.

As he turns 32 on Feb. 5, Ronaldo's eyes may now look east just as Alexander's did about 2,300 years ago. The 2018 World Cup in Russia provides the opportunity for the Portugal captain to fill the last vacant space in his personal museum on his home island of Madeira.

This last remaining summit to climb for Ronaldo is the tallest of his career. Circumstances favoured Portugal last summer in France, to an extent, as they won their first ever international trophy. The World Cup will be more difficult again: the Iberians have only advanced to the semifinals twice, in 1966 and 2006, but fell at this hurdle both times.

Even getting there will be challenging: after a 0-2 defeat last September at leaders Switzerland when Ronaldo was injured, they're currently second in their qualifying group and could well need to come through a play-off to make it to Russia.

As Madrid correspondent for Portugal's Diario de Noticias, Belen Rodrigo has got to know Ronaldo and his family quite well. She told ESPN FC that leading his countrymen to the World Cup was now a big priority.

"For Cristiano, it was very important to win a trophy with his national team and without doubt, following the Euros with a World Cup would crown his fantastic career," said Rodrigo. "It could be his greatest challenge but at the same time, it is difficult as it does not just depend on him. As the most charismatic player in the national side his attitude will be very important to motivate the rest of the team. But he knows Portugal will not go to the tournament as one of the favourites."

Tom Kundert, a Portuguese football expert, adds that Ronaldo's ambition would see him focused on securing a first World Cup trophy for his country.

"Ronaldo's ambitions are limitless, so I'm sure he'll want to win every competition his club and country enters until he retires," said Kundert. "Seeing the way he celebrated Portugal's triumph at Euro 2016, it is obvious how much playing for his country means to him. If you told him he could only win one more trophy in his career, I'm 100 percent certain he'd choose the 2018 World Cup."

While 2016 was the best 12 months of Ronaldo's career, the new year has not begun in such happy fashion. Madrid's long unbeaten run came to an end at Sevilla in La Liga, and elimination from the Copa del Rey followed vs. Celta Vigo. Coach Zinedine Zidane has also started to rest his star galactico more than previous coaches dared, and also move him from the left-wing into a less physically demanding centre-forward position.

A further complicating factor is the 2017 Confederations Cup in Russia, which means he will have less time for recovery or recuperation this summer. This is a big issue given that the long slog of the club season saw him struggle with pain in his knee at the 2014 World Cup. It also contributed to the injury in the same joint that forced him off early in last summer's Euro final win over France.

MaisFutebol director and Portuguese TV pundit Lluis Mateus says that Ronaldo will take the situation in stride and ensure he is in good physical condition for the World Cup in Russia.

"This year will be different than previous ones," said Mateus. "He can get frustrated at not scoring so many goals, and will need to redefine himself and play differently. He must prepare himself for that. This evolution has already started, but it will become more profound. He's a very responsible guy and prepares physically for all challenges."

Yet he's unlikely to ration his energy at the club level just to prepare for the World Cup.

"Cristiano does not seem to be a guy with only one focus," said Mateus. "I think he'll still want it all: more Champions Leagues, recovering Spanish football domination for Real Madrid, and more individual FIFA and Ballon d'Or prizes. When the World Cup finally comes he'll focus on winning of course. Being European Champion gives him more reasons to believe than before."

Ronaldo and a talented new generation stunned the world in winning Euro 2016. There's optimism for Russia in 2018, too.

Kundert has witnessed fresh optimism in Portugal that their team can become even better than the defensive solid counter-attacking side that won in France last summer.

"People realise it's a huge ask, but there's optimism that Portugal could again do very well," he says. "Euro 2016 was won with the help of several young players: Raphael Guerreiro, Joao Mario, Renato Sanches all played key roles. More young talents have broken into the team since then, like Andre Silva, Gelson Martins and Joao Cancelo. It's reasonable to expect all these to be better players in 18 months' time than they are now.

At the club level, Ronaldo has been criticised recently for a declining goals per game ratio, with local pundits pointing out his early year stats were the lowest since he'd joined the club/ However he did then score one and assist another in last weekend's 3-0 La Liga win over Real Sociedad. Kundert feels that he and the team's other veterans will still be able to make a big contribution in Russia.

"On the other hand, the older players -- Pepe, Ronaldo, Joao Moutinho, Jose Fonte -- are still performing at a high level. So there's every reason to feel Portugal can be at least as strong, or maybe even stronger, than they were in France last year."

Yet Mateus says that nobody is getting carried away or expecting Ronaldo, with the exciting crop of youngsters, to follow neighbours Spain and win both competitions back to back.

"Well, it's one thing to win the European Championship and another is to repeat it in the World Cup," he says. "Honestly, this is not Portugal's best generation of footballers, few expected that the first big win as a national team would come last year. Some good players are coming through, so Portugal can have more solutions in the next year, even if Ronaldo is not so explosive anymore.

"They have a good chance to go the latter stages but first they need to qualify, which will not be that easy, and winning is a really, really, big mountain to climb."

Ancient historians tell us that Alexander eventually grew tired of climbing so many mountains and around his 32nd birthday, he lost the motivation for even more long arduous campaigns. So far, Ronaldo has shown no inclination for easing himself towards an early retirement, signing a new five-year contract with Madrid last November he said he could see himself playing until 40.

Rodrigo also says that Portuguese supporters expect their hero to remain and lead them at the top level for many more years yet.

"Personally I don't see Cristiano leaving the national team so soon," she says. "He's a player of records, and he'll want to keep adding to the number of games and played and goals scored in a Portugal jersey. And if possible, trophies too.

"He's still young and, if injuries allow it, he could be playing at the top level for more years. The Portuguese fans are counting on him."

Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan


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