If only Cristiano Ronaldo had been so cutting on the actual pitch. After the Real Madrid star failed to score in Portugal’s frustrating 1-1 draw with Iceland, a match in which he put forward a very quiet and underwhelming individual performance, he at least succeeded in taking some attention away from the Nordic heroes with the following comments in the mixed zone.
“Iceland didn’t try anything,” Ronaldo said after Iceland had actually pulled off the greatest result in their history in their first ever tournament match. “It was a lucky night for them. We should have three points but we are OK. I thought they’d won the Euros the way they celebrated at the end. It was just unbelievable. When they don’t try to play and just defend, defend, defend this is in my opinion shows a small mentality and are not going to do anything in the competition.”
You could say it was surprising that Ronaldo would come out with disrespectful comments like this, as the Iceland story is so well-known by now, but they’re all too believable given what we have already heard on numerous occasions throughout his career. The sad reality is that, aside from being bitter and laughable, these words were also self-absorbed and a typically arrogant attempt to absolve himself of any criticism.
Put simply, these are the type of comments that fuel his critics, reiterate why he is greatly respected rather than adored and why he doesn’t have the widespread affection that his ability should afford him. Iceland’s Kari Arnason offered a bit more edge after the game, saying that Ronaldo is “not a gracious human being” and adding: “His comments are the reason why [Lionel] Messi is always going to be one step ahead of him… it shows we got under his skin. It was lovely to hear that.”
Given how deeply competitive Ronaldo is with Messi, Arnason’s words may have irked the Portuguese even further. Asked whether you would expect Messi to say things like that, the Iceland defender said “no.”
Arnason plays his club football with Malmo, and appeared in Real Madrid’s 8-0 humiliation of the Swedish side in the Champions League this season — when Ronaldo hit four — so that adds another level of hypocrisy to the star’s comments. It’s extremely rich for Ronaldo to complain about how Iceland celebrated such a meaningful result for them, given the ostentatious and often ludicrous in-your-face way he celebrates genuinely meaningless goals when Real are just adding another to a pummelling of vastly inferior-resourced sides like Malmo, Getafe or Levante. With the way he reacts to those — to use the player’s own phrase against him — you would think he had won the Spanish title. That is still something he has barely done, managing it just once in seven years.
Ronaldo surely can’t even claim ignorance of the Iceland story. His comments came after he was asked about whether he could see the romance of their result. He didn’t seem to care about that.
The comments are even worse when you consider the pattern of the game, let alone the context. Iceland kept him so quiet on the pitch, with crunching tackles and pressing, which may explain why Ronaldo was so unfairly vociferous on it. When Ronaldo did finally get a chance, a free header minutes from the end, he wasted it with a poor effort straight at the goalkeeper.
Indeed, as Arnason also said, Iceland “almost nicked the win so him saying we aren’t going for the win contradicts that.” It’s all the more impressive that they actually came from behind. Sides that are set up in the truly defensive way Ronaldo described tend to have no way back once they concede the opening goal.
There was just so much hypocrisy, and also self-indulgent wastefulness. Around the time that Iceland did get those chances to nick it, Portugal got a series of free kicks. Ronaldo, of course, insisted on taking them, only to add to his continuously poor set-piece record in recent times. His goal against Portsmouth for Manchester United in 2008 may be one of his most famous, but he has failed on what feel like endless attempts to repeat it.
The thing with Ronaldo is that, for all his preening and self-indulgence, many teammates do like him a lot. At one media dinner, one figure began criticising the Portuguese’s selfishness as a player, only for a former Manchester United teammate of Ronaldo’s to immediately interject that, in 2007-08, the player told Owen Hargreaves to take United’s free kicks as he was hitting them better.
But Ronaldo’s comments on Iceland are why he possibly doesn’t get the credit he deserves as a player. He should have known that, given the nature of the Iceland story, there is just no way to say those things and not look bad.
Despite all that, the fitting final word went to Iceland. “I mean, he can say whatever he wants,” Arnason said. “He didn’t really get a chance today, he got one and he couldn’t put it away. What can I say? Sore loser. Tough s—.”
Miguel Delaney is a London-based correspondent for ESPN FC and also writes for the Irish Examiner and others. Follow him on Twitter @MiguelDelaney.