In an incredible fashion, Portugal captain and the country’s super-celebrity Cristiano Ronaldo complained about Iceland showing unreserved joy at taking a point against Portugal on Tuesday night.
He slammed Iceland saying, "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 in my opinion shows a small mentality and are not going to do anything in the competition.”
Let us first talk how disdainful a statement it was from one of the world’s biggest sportspersons. The footballing rise of the tiny nation of Iceland has been nothing short of remarkable illustrated by a climb of 109 spots in the FIFA rankings in just the last three years. Iceland is a nation of approximately 325,000 people, situated in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean. The national football team of the nation had never qualified for a major tournament in as many as 23 attempts, but a great qualifying campaign that included victories against Turkey, Czech Republic and a memorable “double” over football giants Netherlands, meant it qualified in style for the ongoing European championship. It already seems enough of an achievement that they are playing the finals of the competition.
Iceland’s rise is not just a case of an underdog side managing to do brilliantly by fluke or due to mere individual brilliance; it has been a passion transcended into a 20-year project. It is largely down to an investment in education and facilities, excellent youth development, some individual genius culminated into great team work, and the brilliance of their coaches, Lars Lagerback and Heimir Hallgrímsson.
Lagerback made his name as Sweden’s coach for a lengthy spell of nine years between 2000 and 2009 which included qualifications in three European championships. He was also in-charge of Nigeria for the 2010 World Cup. In a smart decision by the Football Association of Iceland, he was asked to take over the country’s senior football team in 2011. Heimir Hallgrímsson joined him in the coaching role in 2013 and the duo has been in-charge of the team together since and their managerial partnership has worked wonders.
The small nation could have had the joy of being in a major tournament two years earlier. Iceland finished second in Group E for the 2014 World Cup qualification and had to face Croatia for the play-offs. At home, the nation played strongly and the tie ended in a stalemate but goals from Madzukic and Srna at Zagreb meant Iceland came agonisingly close to getting on the plane to Brazil but eventually just fell short. Lagerback and Hallgrimsson; however, refused to get deterred and their work is deservedly reaping dividends. The improvement can be summarised in the fact that in the Euro 2012 qualification rounds, Iceland won just one game out of eight, a 1–0 victory at home against Cyprus; in 2016, they won 6 games, lost just two, scored 17 goals and conceded a paltry six.
As Iceland and Portugal embarked in the Group F tie in St Etienne, the focus was on how Iceland would try to hold their own against a team led by one of the world’s top two footballers. Iceland did seem slightly shell-shocked in the first half and a goal from former Manchester United player Luis Nani (not Cristiano Ronaldo), gave the Portuguese the lead. Iceland came back from the interval stronger and more composed, and a 50th minute volley from Birkir Bjarnason forced Portugal to share the spoils of the game.
It was Iceland’s first goal, first point, in their first match of a major international tournament— isn’t that enough to make them celebrate the point like they won the tournament? Most impressively, they managed to get both after being behind, showing resilience, character and grit.
Cristiano Ronaldo cost Real Madrid £80m when they bought him from Manchester United which is almost four times more than all the Iceland players cost their clubs combined.
There is no denying the hard work Ronaldo has put into getting where he has. Hours of training and dedication have made the Portuguese the superstar he is today. But in belittling the nation of Iceland for taking a point off his side, he is showing his own small-mindedness.
Ronaldo’s comments calling out Iceland’s “small mentality” would have still carried some justifica-tion if he was not quiet for most of the match; but on a night where he couldn’t worthwhile impact, saying, “Iceland didn’t try anything” and “it was a lucky night for them” seems foolish and indubit-ably arrogant.
These comments would have been bewildering coming from such a celebrated figure in the world of sport but given he has spoken in similar tone on various instances in the past, they didn’t surprise as much. Ronaldo has never been viewed as a humble person or someone who has been modest about his achievements; and has never showed any need to change that either. The narrative painting Ronaldo as a villain, someone with uncontrollable need for attention and a “siege mentality” much like José Mourinho, of treating anyone outside his own circle as an enemy has been debated for some time now. With instances like these, the need for an argument is redundant and the critics have got further ammunition.
No one who values hard work will make the mistake of belittling Ronaldo’s efforts like he did for Iceland on Tuesday night. Ernest Hemingway said it best when he remarked, “There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self”.
Cristiano Ronaldo will be remembered in the highest regard as a footballer of monumental abilities, but not for his nobility which would have only amplified the respect he has earned in the world. That is fitting because quite evidently, Cristiano Ronaldo doesn’t really care about the word.