It is, quite frankly, not fair.
There are many ways for footballers to age. Some depart acrimoniously in a cloud of ill-feeling, refusing to go gently into that good substitute's bench. Others go more gracefully, shifting positions and dropping down the leagues. Perhaps they start to exchange on-field contributions for a more paternal role, becoming a wise head or an inspiration.
A few even choose to go abruptly, before any decline can truly set in. Out at the top, or pretty close to it, before any of the memories can be tarnished by a late period spent huffing and puffing and creaking at the knees. But all of them go, one way or the other.
Except, apparently, Cristiano Ronaldo.
Physically, the aging process is working much as you'd expect. In the early stages of his career, he blossomed from a skinny bundle of potential into an attacking player who would hunt the ball out, anywhere on the pitch, then drive toward the opposition goal; now he is refining himself back down into a single-minded goal hanger. He runs less. He moves less. He barely dribbles past opponents anymore, and what trickery he permits himself is devoted entirely to opening up a shooting angle.
What's admirable (if you're a warmhearted and generous person, which you're not) or galling (if you're fueled entirely by schadenfreude, which you are) is that the process of refinement and self-reinvention hasn't been accompanied by any drop in effectiveness. On Tuesday night, with a little assistance from an unusually ragged Atlético Madrid, Ronaldo scored a hat trick in the semifinals of the Champions League.
None of the goals will go down as his very best. The first was a decent jump and a firm header; the second, to kill the game, was an excellent finish after an obliging deflection. The third was taken unmarked, with Atlético beaten and broken, from roughly the penalty spot. And he's pretty good from there.
But he won't care, and nor will Zinedine Zidane. They gave Real Madrid a likely insurmountable advantage in the two-legged tie. They were Ronaldo's 33rd, 34th, and 35th goals of the season and took him to 10 for the tournament. He's 32. He's been a first choice at the highest level since he was a teenager.
And it is not fair. It is a betrayal of one of the fundamental transactions of professional sport. The exchange runs as follows: Of all the billions of people who dream dreams of sporting brilliance, only a few get to make it. The rest of us, mere mortals all, can only watch, but as compensation that we get to see the whole thing unfold. I saw Ronaldo, the rise, the peak, and then the fall.
We are as lumpen frogs to the sporting gods. Squatting on the riverbank, we watch the mayflies dance in the sunlight, and we watch them vanish as it sets. The complete story. It's not much consolation for never being able to fly, but it has to do.
But Ronaldo, curse him, is still fluttering around at the highest level, rattling home hat-tricks in Champions League semifinals. He's starting to accrue all the trappings of the former great — statues in airports, museums, feature films, grateful citations from younger teammates — while still being, well, actually great. And he could well end the season as the primary goal-scoring force behind a La Liga and Champions League double, which would likely roll over into yet another Ballon d'Or.
He is refusing to accept the natural arc of the sporting story; he has, instead, reshaped himself into something different in character but equally potent. This is not what 32-year-old footballers with over 800 games on their legs are supposed to be doing.
He does, of course, deserve a certain amount of grudging respect for this process of continually relevant reinvention. And when the time comes to look back at his career, when a 45-year-old Ronaldo signs off with a 50-goal season and his 17th Golden Ball, this may go down as the second-most remarkable thing about his career. After all the goals, obviously.
Because in the final balance, hardly anybody gets to be one of the greatest football players of their time. Ronaldo, in his mid and his late stages, has arguably been two, and has transformed himself from one to another through force of will, dedication, and relentless utility.
That's fairly amazing. But it really isn't fair.