Watching Portugal scrape an ill-deserved draw against the United States last night, I was surprised to find myself thinking about Patrick Ewing. Specifically I recalled the ingenious theory popularised by Bill Simmons in the early days of this century that the story of Patrick Ewing's career demonstrated that you could sometimes—or so it seemed—make a team better by removing its greatest player.
Obviously this is head-frying, counter-intuitive stuff. But the Ewing Theory is not as daft as it might initially seem. As Simmons explained, it only requires two elements: first, a single player must receive enormous dollops of attention and hype "and yet his teams never win anything substantial with him" and, second, "that same athlete leaves his team (either by injury, trade, graduation, free agency or retirement—and both the media and fans immediately write off the team for the following season." When these elements collide, Simmons wrote, "you have the Ewing Theory". A theory tested, and proven in some people's view, by the fact that the Knicks made the 1999 NBA finals with Ewing rupturing an achilles tendon during the Eastern conference finals.
There are other examples. Peyton Manning leaves the Tennessee Volunteers and they win a national title the very next season. The San Francisco Giants never win the World Series with Barry Bonds. Three years after he retires in disgrace, the Giants become World Champions.
Cemeteries are stuffed with the graves of irreplaceable men, of course. It turns out they are fewer in number than we generally think. Holland make the World Cup final with Johann Cruyff in 1974 and they do the exact same thing four years later without a man owning a plausible claim to being the greatest European footballer of all time.
Anyway, there I was watching Portugal producing another feeble performance and I began to think a heretical thought: what if Cristiano Ronaldo is part of Portugal's problem, not part of their promise? Would Portugal be better without him?
In one sense the Ewing theory does not apply to Ronaldo. The most self-regarding footballer in the world has, after all, won plenty of titles during his career. Poor old Patrick Ewing won nada. Also, of course, Portugal can't or won't drop Ronaldo. He remains their greatest player and their greatest strength. But strengths are often just a kinder way of labelling weaknesses, and Portugal's evident reliance on Ronaldo seems a weakness.
True, their record in major competitions is hardly disgraceful. Portugal were runners-up in Euro 2004, semi-finalists in the 2006 World Cup, and semi-finalists again at Euro 2012. Nevertheless, Portugal have scored a mere 16 goals in 13 World Cup games since Ronaldo made his debut on the greatest stage. Their goal-scoring record in the European Championships is little better: 21 goals in 15 games.
I think they've been lucky to do as well as they have. People bore on about Lionel Messi's supposed "under-achievement" at the international level, but they rarely seem so bothered by Ronaldo's. A goal-a-game machine at Real Madrid, he scores less than half as frequently for Portugal.
You might object that this only proves he's surrounded by better players at Real Madrid. Perhaps so. Even at Real Madrid it is not all about Ronaldo any more than Barcelona's successes have been all about Messi. Then again, Portugal's players are hardly chopped liver. Most of them play for leading European sides.
The crucial difference between Messi and Ronaldo is the former's ability to sink himself into a team and the latter's apparent difficulty in doing so. For Portugal it's all about Ronaldo and Ronaldo all the times. On the BBC, Phil Neville recalled his time playing with Ronaldo at Manchester United, noting that if the team won but Ronaldo hadn't scored the winning goal he'd sit sulking in the dressing room, saying nothing. It was as if success was discounted if it hadn't been won by Ronaldo's efforts alone. Perhaps Messi behaves in a similar fashion, but I rather doubt it.
But when everything flows through a single player, a team can be stifled by a single choke point. Italy's reliance on Andrea Pirlo is a limitation; so is Portugal's on Ronaldo. In both instances the absence of a great striker is a further handicap, but teams have prospered despite such handicaps in the past. France won a World Cup with Stephane Guivarch up front.
I can't say Portugal would be better without Ronaldo, but it's not wholly daft to wonder if they might be. He is their biggest threat, but also a significant weakness (and not least because he won't defend). It leads to a situation in which the answer to every problem and every difficulty is always the same: just give the ball to Ronaldo.
Soccer is a team game, however, in which players must take responsibility. Role players are important, of course, but subordinating absolutely everything to the needs of an individual risks undermining the coherence of the collective ethic. Are Portugal playing for their country or for their star player? The latter theory might go some way towards explaining why they've been so utterly crap.
If Ronaldo weren't playing Portugal's other players—many of them useful footballers—might find themselves strangely liberated. It's only a theory, and it may look ridiculous once Ronaldo scores four against Ghana, but right now he's as much of the problem as the solution to Portugal's evident woes.