Sometimes when opposition fans ostentatiously laud an opponent, it can be something of a half-hearted protest against their own underperforming team, less celebrating genius than demanding why their players can’t do something like that.
But not this time. This time, they all seemed to get up. Around the Allianz Stadium, Juventus fans rose to their feet and applauded, many for at least one minute. It was as if they didn’t have a choice and were compelled against their will to recognise what they had just seen.
It was not polite, distracted applause, either. This was full-on, banging-their-hands together, rapturous clapping. It was difficult to tell if any of them shouted “bravo” or demanded more, but you would not be surprised.
Such was the majesty of what Cristiano Ronaldo achieved in the 64th minute of Real Madrid’s 3-0 win vs. Juventus in Tuesday’s Champions League quarterfinal first leg.
Let’s start with his thought process. Dani Carvajal’s cross from the right was well judged and heading for Lucas Vazquez at the back post. The substitute would, presumably, try to cushion down a header to set up a shooting chance for a colleague. It was the high-percentage play, the sensible move. Basically, it was what most human beings would do.
But what’s more boring than being sensible? Ronaldo has often shown that something in his head is different; in an odd way, it feeds into his act when he misses a chance. With a pout, he seems to say: “Putting that over the bar wasn’t my fault. How could it be my fault? I am Ronaldo.” It’s a sort of super-confidence mixed with total denial.
When you operate at such a level and under such scrutiny, there must be a sense of delusion: If you believe the misses aren’t your fault, the next chance is easier to score. Ergo, you retain the confidence to try what seems impossible; even having processed all the available information in a fraction of a heartbeat, you settle on the least likely course of action because you know you can do it.
Look at the photos,A�and you’ll see a 33-year-old man — thirty-three! — hanging, horizontally, in midair. Even before he swung a boot, he achieved something with which many other athletes in the world would struggle. The qualifying height for the men’s high jump at the 2016 Olympics was 2.29m; Ronaldo probably wasn’t far off that, which means he basically made the final before he kicked the ball.
But that was merely a prelude. Having achieved such a position, his right leg violently swung through the rainy air, past the left, above his head and toward the intercept point of the ball. Then came the precise, fraction of a millisecond calculation to ensure that his connection was perfect. The next time anyone asks why people can use the word “genius” to describe professional footballers, this should be Exhibit A.
Draw a Venn diagram of those who would have thought to attempt this and those good enough to pull it off, and in the middle, you’ll find Ronaldo. This goal was an impossible mixture of athleticism and audacity, the sort of thing written into bad sports films at which we all shake our heads. Wouldn’t happen. Couldn’t happen. Nobody can actually doA�that.
You can often tell how good a goal is by the reaction from the other players. As Ronaldo’s rocket struck the net, Juventus goalkeeper Gigi Buffon’s stood rooted to the spot, shoulders slumped, in that instant realising that one of the great Champions League goals had effectively ended his magnificent career (he has said that he will retire if Juve don’t win the trophy).
Elsewhere, Ronaldo’s teammate Isco put his hands to his head, perhaps confused that time and space had apparently bent before his eyes. Juve’s Andrea Barzagli, like Buffon a World Cup winner, simply spread his arms as if to say: “Well, what can you do about that?”
The goal was so good that Zinedine Zidane rubbed his head in disbelief, enacting a slightly lower-key version of Bobby Robson’s reaction to a goal by Ronaldo’s Brazilian namesake for Barcelona vs. Compostela many years ago. Imagine making Zidane — Zinedine Zidane! — think: “How did he do that?” Now you know how the rest of us feel, Zizou.
As for the man himself, well, Ronaldo reacted in much the way you’d expect. Initially, there was peacocking — Mick Jagger with bigger muscles — with a finger jabbed into his own chest and repeated insistence to the crowd that he was, in fact, No. 1.
Ronaldo has received deserved praise for his reinvention as a goal-poacher late in his career, but here was a reminder that he retains an ability to pull off the extraordinary. When he realised that they realised that and stood, there was humility as he placed his hands together before bowing like a concert pianist being showered with roses at La Scala.
In 2003, Manchester United supporters stood when the “other” Ronaldo, playing for Real Madrid, scored a magnificent Champions League hat trick at Old Trafford. Fifteen years later, it was Cristiano Ronaldo who took the applause from opposing fans, who recognised several seconds of the most extraordinary football that they, you, me and everyone else are likely to see.