“We are making the whole world happy. You know, when you watch Rocky Balboa, you want to support Rocky because he’s the loser, that’s normal,” he said.
“We are Rocky in this tournament.”
Are we giving too much credence to the idea? Perhaps. Because as the Apollo Creeds of world soccer walked away from the ring last night, crying, you couldn’t help but wonder how the opposite number of Regragui, Fernando Santos’ hand, must have been forced last night.
Santos’ Portugal have played their best football against Morocco, more than evenly matched for big periods of play. Their delay was due to an error between his goalkeeper, Diogo Costa and defender, Ruben Diaz, a natural result of the game’s constant, furious lunging and blocking and highly likely with the intensity and efficiency of Morocco’s counter-attacks .
But it wasn’t as if Joao Felix and Bruno Fernandez were blown out of the water afterwards, unable to operate, legs heavy, minds blank, but then the theater of football’s superstar ethic is such that Santos had no choice but introduce Cristiano Ronaldo to save the game.
Even Regrarui would have noticed. “When we scored a goal and when Ronaldo brought in him, they became obnoxious and played too much up front,” he noted.
Such is his reputation that the specter of Ronaldo would always hold sway. “Honestly, you surpassed their coach (with the goal),” Regrarui would explain, admitting, “But the tactic that scared me was the introduction of Ronaldo.”
Still, it was colossal, the mistake, not the entry. Ronaldo was worse than being only peripheral to the proceedings, confused as to his position, unaware of his role in the plan, a once-proud and ultra-effective superstar who simply withered before the eyes of the world he beheld.
On his first touch, he would be robbed of the ball in a once unthinkable now routine moment, then he would shift, shuffle and shift trying to guess and adapt to the patterns his team had already formed, all well-known symptoms of a player unsure of his role and, dare I say, ability too. His entry would force the system to be retooled to accommodate him.
His touches and intentions would have shown ambition and pride and flashes of his fearsome old man, but somewhere the world was moving faster than he could. However you viewed it, in the stadium or on HD TV, with the luxury of a million angles and replays to seduce your mind, it wasn’t a pretty sight. It didn’t even end well.
Santos offered his explanation. “Cristiano is a great player. He came when I thought he needed it. So, I don’t regret it,” he would say, and then sigh, “But yeah, the dressing room is shattered.”
This was not the end a player of his legend, numbers and ambition deserved, but then that was the curse of becoming bigger than the collective Portugal was falling into, despite the best efforts of the others.
Regrarui’s words would offer some consolation, but would they be enough? “They have caused us more problems than Spain. It was clear that they had studied us, they put many players between the lines, many balls behind us and crosses from the flanks.
“We held on, they didn’t let us breathe. We were much more tired than in the Spain match,” he said. The relief would be extreme and so palpable.
At the final whistle, instead of finding their own match that made history, two Moroccan players would have immediately rushed to the great Ronaldo and offered their commiserations. It would be the most touching and instinctive act to recognize a legend in their midst.
Yet as you watched him walk away, inconsolable, you felt it was fitting that it end now, even if so, to prolong the agony of watching a legend in decline, yet in denial, would be so uncharitable as the formidable self-made legend of Cristiano Ronaldo. When Rocky becomes Apollo Creed, stop rooting for the underdog because someone else takes his place. Here was Morocco.