Manaus, Brazil: The World Cup arrives every four years, and without fail, it brings a good and possibly even true story about a witch doctor.
This particular witch doctor put a curse on the knees of Cristiano Ronaldo in February. These are not just any knees. The reigning world Player of the Year, Ronaldo is so agile and elusive that he is the only man known to have dated Kim Kardashian without marrying her for a reality show.
And this was no random application of the dark arts. The witch doctor happened to be from Ghana, which, like the United States and Germany, was drawn into the same group as Ronaldo and Portugal.
The spell involved something about four dogs, leaves, a special spirit and a whammy so potent it could not be cured by medical science, television evangelists or juice therapy.
“They can never see what is causing the injury because it is spiritual,” Nana Kwaku Bonsam, whose name translates as Devil of Wednesday, told a Ghanaian radio station Angel FM. “Today, it is his knee, tomorrow it is his thigh, next day it is something else.”
(Really, if you’re going to be a witch doctor, you couldn’t have a better name than Devil of Wednesday, although one wonders why Dr. Devil is giving interviews to an outfit named Angel FM.)
Scoff if you will, but, according to news accounts, Ronaldo arrived in Brazil with the knees of an aging NFL lineman. Tendinitis in his left knee, to be specific.
His own doctor told a Portuguese newspaper that the injury could threaten Ronaldo’s career. The doctor suggested that Ronaldo take two months off. Ronaldo suggested that no one flies off to South Beach in the middle of the World Cup.
At training Friday, Ronaldo wore what was described as a brace on his ailing knee. Still, the Americans never doubted he would play Sunday. This is soccer, after all, where players are writhing in agony one second and doing the River Dance the next, having been magically sprayed with WD-40 and oven cleaner.
Plus, Portugal lost its opener, 4-0, to Germany. And four other players were already absent Sunday because of suspension and injury. Paulo Bento, Portugal’s coach, put his team’s situation in dire terms: “Either we win or we start packing our suitcase.”
(So you’re thinking, wow, you have 23 players and only one suitcase? Talk about traveling light. But we move on.)
Even a hobbled Ronaldo would be dangerous, said Tim Howard, the U.S. goalkeeper who joined Manchester United of the English Premier League along with Ronaldo in 2003. Howard would know as well as anyone that Ronaldo is not all hair gel, preening good looks and six-pack abs.
“He’s the single hardest working player I’ve ever been around, on and off the field,” Howard said.
And that’s just talking about his blow dryer.
Not to mention, Howard added, that Ronaldo is big and strong with impeccable control; gymnastic balance; a heavy, dipping shot and an unmatched skill at getting the ball to heel, sit and roll over like a dachshund.
Sunday, the Americans started five midfielders, trying to enhance possession and cut off the supply to Ronaldo. It was an attempt to treat him the way children treat fireflies.
“We’re going to do our best to bottle him up,” Howard said, adding, “It’s not been done in four or five years, but we’ll see what we can do.”
And yet there was a risk in focusing on Ronaldo and ignoring others.
“If we pay too much attention to Ronaldo, someone else will beat us,” Howard cautioned.
Portugal, too, sought to avoid a desperate reliance on Ronaldo. He scored all four of the team’s goals in a two-legged playoff victory over Sweden to qualify for the World Cup. And he led Real Madrid to its 10th European championship.
But to think Portugal could defeat the U.S. solely on a gilded performance by Ronaldo, Bento said, would be a “terrible mistake.”
“I would never put on his shoulders the responsibility of solving our problems,” Bento said. As coach, he added, “I have to do that.”
Ronaldo had an apparent lightning bolt shaved into his head and a long-sleeved jersey, as if to signal that he was not concerned about the heat and humidity. His first pass wandered out of bounds. Then he brought the crowd alive with flamboyant dribbling, making the ball stop and start as if it were a student driver with a manual transmission.
Then, in the fifth minute, a poor clearance by Geoff Cameron left the ball to Nani, Portugal’s other wing, who pounced for the goal. Howard’s caution was perceptive. Ronaldo was hardly Portugal’s only dangerous player.
As the half wore on, Ronaldo took a theatrical dive, showed frustration at his lack of touches, made a cavorting pass to Nani for a low shot that Howard saved, bounced his own shot to Howard from 30 yards and ballooned a free kick over the crossbar.
At halftime, Ronaldo changed to a short-sleeved jersey. But he was not sharp. He fell easily in the penalty area, lost the ball, shot well wide on a stab down the right flank, running his hands through his hair in annoyance. Moments later, Jermaine Jones curled a blast inside the far post for the U.S. and the game was tied at 1-1.
Portugal was frantic now for a win. Ronaldo sprinted just offsides. A cross from Nani eluded him in the penalty area. Matt Besler cut out a pass to Ronaldo and so did Cameron. Then Clint Dempsey chested home what seemed to be the winner for the Americans.
But Ronaldo was not done. He needed only a moment to show his greatness. Deep into added time, he curved a brilliant cross from the right flank and Varela headed it past Howard to salvage a 2-2 draw.
Portugal was still alive. Ghana remains, and the witch doctor will need another potion.