Wednesday’s front pages revealed both the ecstasy and despair of Portugal’s 4-2 aggregate win over Sweden in World Cup qualifying.
"Ronaldo the Largest!" shouted A Bola, no doubt revelling in a performance that saw the Portugal captain outplay Sweden skipper Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
A few lines down: "Ronaldo the Best in the World."
Stockholm’s Dagens Nyheter, by comparison, avoided the one-versus-one narrative that had so fascinated the football world in the build-up to the tie, opting instead for a more team-focused approach.
"See You Another Time, Brazil" was their modest, even downplayed, take on the result. Although an image of Ibrahimovic—ball at his feet, staring dejectedly at the ground—perhaps did more to capture the mood of the occasion.
Ronaldo, by virtue of his four-goal showing over the two legs, is off to the 2014 World Cup. Ibrahimovic, despite scoring twice, will miss out. No other player found the back of the net in the more than 180 minutes of high-octane action; as a result, the focus on the two superstars is inevitable.
But what does it mean for the pair of them?
For Ibrahimovic, this was quite likely his last crack at the can as far as world football’s signature event is concerned.
The Paris Saint-German striker will be 36 years old by the time the 2018 finals kick off in Russia and as he told his fans on his personal app, Zlatan Unplugged, the 2014 event likely represented his "last attempt to reach the World Cup." (Daily Mail)
Even national team icon Henrik Larsson, who helped Sweden to a third-place finish at USA ’94, played in his third and final World Cup at 34 years of age, although with manager Erik Hamren’s side seemingly short of both options and prospects up front, it follows that Ibrahimovic will have a place in the squad for as long as he wants one.
In the short term, that means surpassing Sven Rydell’s all-time goalscoring mark of 49 (Ibrahimovic is currently on 48) and helping Sweden qualify for the 2016 European Championship, which will be the first tournament of its kind to include 24 teams in the competition proper.
Naturally, Ibrahimovic had one more arrow in his quiver upon losing to Portugal in Solna.
"One thing is for sure," he said in his post-match press conference. "A World Cup without me is nothing to watch, so it is not worthwhile to wait for the World Cup." (Daily Mail)
He may never again grace a World Cup finals, but as far as cult status is concerned, he will be remembered as much for his words as his goals.
Ronaldo, meanwhile, refused to speak directly about Ibrahimovic following Tuesday’s win.
"I do not compete against Zlatan," he said. "I do not compete against him. I play for my team." (Mirror)
That mentality summed up both his performance over the two legs and the result, but it also reminded both his admirers and detractors that he has never been drawn into player-versus-player comparisons—not with Ibrahimovic, not with Lionel Messi.
He is very much his own man, and in dismantling the Swedes, he only continued along a trajectory that, if anything, has taken a sharp, upward course over the last few months.
With 66 goals in 2013, he has established a new mark for Champions League goalscoring in a calendar year, he has equalled Pauleta’s all-time mark for Portugal and he has put himself on track for the most productive season of his career.
What’s impressive is that he is doing all this at 28 years of age; that in his 12th season of professional football, he continues to improve.
And he may well be rewarded with the Ballon d’Or.
Citing a "low turnout of votes" (as per the Telegraph), FIFA have extended the award’s voting deadline to November 29, meaning his display against Sweden will be taken into consideration by all those who have yet to cast a ballot.
The only other time he was presented with the gong was in 2008 and if he can reclaim it, he will have done so after a five-year period.
Incidentally, the only other player to have done that was the other Ronaldo.
High praise, indeed.
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