Cristiano Ronaldo is always in the spotlight. He's always the focus.
There's Ronaldo on the field, where he's scored 49 goals for the Portuguese national team since the now 29-year-old first made the team at age 18, or at Real Madrid, where he's knocked home 177 goals in 165 games since 2009. He's the FIFA World Player of the Year and universally hailed as one of the two or three best in the game today.
Then there's off the field, where the matinee idol looks make him a tabloid sensation and international icon, his personal life open for all to read.
Sometimes it all mixes, such as the other day when trying to rehab his knee, he went on a jog around the field at Portugal's training. That was enough for about 700 stories to be written, plus a throng of teenage girls to press against a fence and shriek his name as he ambled by.
That's the life of Ronaldo. The focus, always.
Except, perhaps, in the run up to Portugal's critical World Cup game Sunday against the United States. It's not that the Americans won't have a plan for him, or try to monitor his every movement during the game. They will.
This group, however, doesn't seem in the mood to let Ronaldo know they care. At least not too much. Perhaps it's because that's just how they are or maybe they're taking a cue from their coach, Juergen Klinsmann. Whatever it is, the Americans aren't impressed by Ronaldo's celebrity.
"We don't make a big deal about Cristiano," midfielder Jermaine Jones said.
The focus? Not here. Not now. At least not all of it.
"I think we are trying to make it our own game and if he plays on the left side, he will play against Fabian [Johnson]," Jones said. "We have trust in Fabian that he can stop him."
Fabian, your thoughts?
"I think it's not just Ronaldo," Johnson said. "It's the whole team. They have great players, good players, and we have to stop all of them. Not just focus on one guy. … I'm just trying to play my game."
This is how Klinsmann wants them to act, to think, to prepare. No was denying Ronaldo's talent, but the ethos of the Americans has to be one of self-determination and self-confidence.
Everyone else says they aren't good enough. Everyone knows they don't have anyone in the class of Cristiano Ronaldo – and never have had one even close. Everyone knows that the US will need to get their heads down, especially if Ronaldo is close to 100 percent (his team-mates are now claiming he is, for whatever that's worth).
The key for the Americans is not just accepting it without apology but embracing it. Let Ronaldo and Portugal be Ronaldo and Portugal. The US is the US. It should be good enough, Klinsmann keeps saying. The US expects to win, he keeps repeating.
The players are beginning to sound like an echo.
"We know how good their players are," defender Geoff Cameron said. "You can't say enough about the talent that they have. But you've got to look at ourselves and we have a lot of talent. We're going to try to exploit their weaknesses and use our game plan to our advantage."
There's no fear here of taking on the best of the best: "It's fun to play; that's what you want," midfielder Kyle Beckerman said.
It's not that the US defenders don't know what's coming. They understand Ronaldo's done just about everything in football except excel on the World Cup stage. They know he'll be highly motivated after a humiliating 4-0 loss to Germany in the opener. They appreciate his unique ability to score free kicks, the fact he's dangerous from nearly any spot on the field and his ability to just find the back of the net game after game after game.
"He doesn't need many touches," Beckerman said. "I mean, it can be a game where he gets maybe 20, 30 touches but has two goals. You got to just be on high alert when he touches the ball."
The US have a defensive plan in place. They also promise to control the ball more – the best defence is to keep it away from Cristiano. Allowing Portugal to dictate the pace of the game, the way Ghana did, won't work. There are too many weapons this time.
"They're trying to attack, attack, attack," Johnson said, "trying to score as quick as possible."
At one point, Jones was claiming the US was like the San Antonio Spurs, apparently in contrast to Portugal/Ronaldo being the Miami Heat/LeBron. Of course, that's a bit tortured since the Spurs may not have had the best player, but they had the majority of the really good ones, enough to own a talent advantage.
Whatever is working though, let them go with it.
"If you stick together like a team, and fight like a team, then you go forward or you go backwards, you will win the game," Jones said.
Portugal is a world power with a history of greatness. Cristiano Ronaldo is one of the best players and most famous men on the planet.
Neither the US nor its players can claim anything of like that. Headed into Sunday evening's showdown, they don't seem to care.
They'll leave the screaming about Ronaldo to the teenage girls.
By Dan Wetzel
- Sports & Recreation
- Cristiano Ronaldo
- Jermaine Jones