FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — The 10.5 million citizens of Portugal awoke Sunday morning to the news that their short national nightmare was over. Calamity was averted. Life was worth living again. Cristiano Ronaldo — the impeccably coiffed, prodigiously talented, insanely famous forward for the Portuguese national soccer team — was back from injury.
“RONALDO VAI A JOGO” (“Ronaldo will play”), screamed the banner front-page headline in Portuguese sports tabloid O Jogo. “TEMOS HOMEM” (“We have the man”), proclaimed the Record. “O CAPITAO VOLTOU” (“The Captain is back”), A Bola said.
Conveniently, Ronaldo’s injury — described last week in an official release by the nation’s soccer federation as a “muscle injury on the back of his left thigh as well as left-leg patellar tendinitis” — will have kept him sidelined precisely long enough to require him to skip all but the last of Portgual’s pre-World Cup friendlies. Portugal meets Ireland at MetLife Stadium on Tuesday in its last match before departing for Brazil, and Ronaldo is expected to play, if only briefly.
Portugal, part of the dreaded Group G, plays its World Cup opener against Germany on June 16, then faces the United States on June 22 before finishing group play against Ghana on June 26. Its chances of advancing rise exponentially with the return of Ronaldo, the reigning Ballon d’Or winner as the world’s top player, who led Real Madrid to the UEFA Champions League title two weeks ago.
On an NFL practice field modified for soccer at the New York Jets’ training complex, Ronaldo went through a second day of workouts with his teammates Sunday while a breathless media pack of 50 or so, kept behind a yellow rope off to the side, recorded his every movement — at least for the 15 minutes the media were allowed to watch and film. At the end of the viewing, a team publicist walked through the ranks of reporters and cameramen motioning with his thumb toward the exit: the universal symbol for “Scram!”
“If he’s fit to practice with us,” teammate Vieirinha said Sunday, “he’s fit to play.”
Sunday also saw the Portuguese federation go head-to-head with the NFL for supremacy in the area of paranoia, as if the KGB were holding a staff retreat at the headquarters of the CIA. At the entrance to the complex, Jets security officials, perhaps afraid the secrets of the team’s wildcat package would be stolen by the unruly Portugese soccer media, kept cars from entering the parking lot until precisely 3:15 p.m., turning away those who arrived at, say, 3:14, and asking them to wait in their cars outside the gate. The Jets, of course, were off Sunday.
Meanwhile, the Portugese soccer federation kept the identity of the one player chosen to meet the media a secret until 15 minutes before the scheduled the 4 p.m. news conference. That player, as it turned out, was Vieirinha, a backup forward who plays in roughly half the team’s games.
As they waited in the auditorium inside the Jets’ headquarters — with the words “Play like a Jet” written on the wall near the ceiling — for the news conference to begin, the amassed journalists took turns singing into the microphone at the podium, testing the mike’s integrity with Portugese drinking songs instead of the monotone “Check-1-2-3, check, check,” preferred by most American mike-checkers. The jokes they cracked at each other were the funniest in the history of the world given the amount of laughter they induced.
The mood around the Portuguese media, apparently, has improved considerably since the return of Ronaldo to practice. “Fans want to know one thing — not about Portugal,” said Flavio Almeida, a reporter for TVI, a Portuguese television network. “They want to know how is Ronaldo? Will he practice? Will he play? Is he ready for the World Cup?”
Standing in front of a multi-sponsored banner that contained no fewer than 72 Nike swooshes as well as the logos of a Portugese supermarket, bank, oil company and soccer league, Vieirinha took exactly one question in English, swatting it away like a weak corner kick. “Everybody knows the importance of Ronaldo to our team,” he said, his remarks translated from Portuguese by a media representative.
On the practice field, the media’s glimpse of Ronaldo was limited to a few minutes of light ball work and a photo-op pose with the owner of the Jets, Woody Johnson, who met Portugal representatives and exchanged a Jets helmet for a Portugal jersey.
As he lined up for photos, Ronaldo went to put the massive helmet on his head, then suddenly thought better of it. He smiled for the photos, shook some hands and jogged back amid the clicking of cameras to the practice pitch — his hair, still perfect, flopping just so with each step.