Yes, it’s all about Ron­aldo

The world stage is set for CR7, Por­tu­gal’s leader and tal­is­man

FourFourTwo - - CONTENTS - Words Si­mon Cur­tis

It was the mo­ment Cris­tiano Ron­aldo made time stand still. As Dani Car­va­jal looped in a high cross dur­ing Real Madrid’s Cham­pi­ons League quar­ter-fi­nal first leg with Ju­ven­tus in early April, the Madrid colos­sus and Por­tu­gal cap­tain ad­justed his body and took flight.

The re­sult­ing goal, an ex­tra­or­di­nary over­head kick that Ron­aldo would later de­scribe as the great­est of his ca­reer, prompted awe from ev­ery­one in the ground and watch­ing at home. It was a mo­ment that per­fectly en­cap­su­lated Ron­aldo as a player and a man: a com­bi­na­tion of dar­ing, tech­nique and pure ath­leti­cism that left those around him mo­tion­less.

But more than that, it was a mo­ment where the game once again bent to his will and be­came about him, his bril­liance over­shad­ow­ing his team-mates, the op­po­si­tion and the match it­self. And mak­ing the mo­ment all about him­self is, in the nicest pos­si­ble way, what Ron­aldo has done through­out his en­tire ca­reer. It’s the only way he likes it. The big­ger the stage, the bet­ter he plays. Yet he doesn’t have that defin­ing mo­ment for the na­tional team. Por­tu­gal were shocked on home soil by Greece in the fi­nal of his first ma­jor tour­na­ment, Euro 2004. Fol­low­ing 12 years of frus­tra­tion they reached another fi­nal, only for in­jury to deny him a chance to star in their suc­cess at Euro 2016. Bark­ing or­ders from the touch­line as his team-mates won with­out him is not what he has ob­ses­sively worked to­wards for his whole life. He wants to own the stage – and there’s no big­ger stage than the World Cup.

The clos­est that Ron­aldo has come to a ca­reer-defin­ing wa­ter­cooler mo­ment while wear­ing Por­tu­gal colours was prob­a­bly in Novem­ber 2013, when his team were in what might read­ily be called a tricky spot. Not for the first time in re­cent his­tory, they were mak­ing a pig’s ear of qual­i­fy­ing for a tour­na­ment.

Hav­ing fin­ished sec­ond to a deeply unin­spir­ing Rus­sia team in their 2014 World Cup qual­i­fi­ca­tion group, Por­tu­gal were forced to set­tle for a two-legged play-off with Swe­den. Af­ter de­feat­ing the work­man­like Scan­di­na­vians 1-0 in Lis­bon, they trav­elled to Stock­holm’s Friends Arena know­ing that any lapses in con­cen­tra­tion would be pun­ished. Zla­tan Ibrahi­movic was in the op­po­si­tion line-up, and the pre-match chat­ter had cen­tred around the bat­tle be­tween him and Por­tu­gal’s own ego-in-chief. The clash was billed as Cris­tiano vs Zla­tan.

Ron­aldo, in par­tic­u­lar, had a point to prove. Weeks ear­lier, then-fifa pres­i­dent Sepp Blat­ter had sug­gested that he pre­ferred Lionel Messi (the “good boy that ev­ery mother and fa­ther would like to have”) over Ron­aldo, with his “vast ex­penses at the hair­dresser’s”. The com­ment was sup­pos­edly made in jest, but it clearly struck a nerve.

On a tense night, Ron­aldo handed Por­tu­gal the first-half lead that their pres­sure had more than war­ranted. As the sec­ond half wore on, how­ever, Zla­tan struck twice to make the ag­gre­gate score 2-2 and turn the tie on its head, sud­denly putting Por­tu­gal’s World Cup spot in jeop­ardy. Then Ron­aldo did what he had done so many times be­fore. He made the head­lines. Twice he was played through on goal and twice he calmly and el­e­gantly blasted the ball home, com­plet­ing his hat-trick to send team-mates and sup­port­ers into rap­tures. He even drew re­spect­ful ap­plause from the van­quished Zla­tan.

It was left to leg­endary Por­tuguese ra­dio com­men­ta­tor Nuno Matos to pro­vide the sound­track for a na­tion back home. “Oh yes, a hat-trick for Cris­tiano Ron­aldo! A hat-trick for the world’s best! A hat-trick that takes Por­tu­gal to Brazil! Saaaaaaamba! Ron­aaaaldo! He sur­passes the lim­its of logic! It’s glory, it’s vic­tory, it’s another supreme mo­ment!”

The spotty kid from Madeira with a funny ac­cent – the kid who’d shot to fame in 2003 when he so bam­boo­zled Manch­ester United’s stars in a pre-sea­son friendly that a del­e­ga­tion urged man­ager Alex Ferguson to sign him from Sport­ing there and then – had ma­tured into a leader of men.

“I knew Por­tu­gal needed me in these matches and I showed that I am here,” Ron­aldo told Por­tuguese TV af­ter the game. Just when it looked as though even he couldn’t drag them back from the brink, he car­ried his na­tion on his shoul­ders in a way that he’d only threat­ened to do be­fore. Blat­ter’s clumsy ut­ter­ances in the pre­ced­ing days had only added fuel to a fu­ri­ously burn­ing fire.

To un­der­stand where this supreme player found his mo­ti­va­tion, it’s im­por­tant to learn a lit­tle about the com­plex char­ac­ter be­hind the un­re­mark­able boy who be­came a global su­per­star.

Brought up in a dif­fi­cult en­vi­ron­ment by his mother, a cleaner, and more in­ter­mit­tently by his fa­ther, a mu­nic­i­pal gar­dener, the young Cris­tiano had few crea­ture com­forts dur­ing his early years. As with his com­pa­triot Nani, and many others who’d ac­com­pany them on the route from poverty to rep­re­sent­ing Por­tu­gal in their finest hour in Paris, two cen­tral themes have stood out: hunger and ded­i­ca­tion.

That drive has al­ways led Ron­aldo to de­mand the very best of his team-mates. How­ever, as he has ma­tured, he has re­alised that the best way to achieve his per­sonal goals isn’t by leav­ing his col­leagues be­hind, but by drag­ging them along for the ride.

Come 2016, that les­son stood him in good stead.

One sus­pects that, go­ing into Euro 2016, Cris­tiano Ron­aldo’s aim was clear and sim­ple: score the win­ning goal in the fi­nal, be the cen­tre of at­ten­tion, and en­joy look­ing at pho­to­graphs of him­self hold­ing the tro­phy for the rest of the sum­mer. That’s it.

For the first cou­ple of weeks in France, that looked pretty un­likely. Hav­ing been held by debu­tants Ice­land, Por­tu­gal then drew 0-0 with Aus­tria, Ron­aldo drag­ging a late penalty against the base of the post – a fourth miss in five at­tempts from the spot for club and coun­try.

The vul­tures were cir­cling Por­tu­gal’s camp, and the Parc des Princes mixed zone of­fered a re­veal­ing snap­shot of how the cap­tain was now shoul­der­ing the pres­sure. Aus­tria were also in trou­ble, the sup­posed dark horses hav­ing al­ready lost to Hun­gary. But when their de­fender Martin Hin­tereg­ger made him­self avail­able for ques­tions, a jour­nal­ist from an English tabloid hounded him on all things Ron­aldo: “What did he say to you about the penalty? What did he say when it hit the post? Did he shake your hand af­ter the game?” Af­ter Hin­tereg­ger had de­parted, the jour­nal­ist was asked by another why he’d asked only about Ron­aldo. He shrugged and said, “It’s easy.”

The scene neatly sum­marised the weight of pres­sure that was now be­ing han­dled by Ron­aldo off the pitch as well as on it. Some of the cov­er­age of Por­tu­gal had be­come an­tag­o­nis­tic and Ron­aldo seemed to be bear­ing the brunt, pro­tect­ing less prom­i­nent team-mates from such scru­tiny. His next in­ter­ven­tion helped them even more.


Por­tu­gal faced Hun­gary in a fre­netic last group game. As with all of foot­ball’s top per­form­ers, it seemed only a mat­ter of time be­fore CR7 sprung into de­ci­sive ac­tion. Hun­gary scored first; Ron­aldo’s slide-rule pass for Nani made it 1-1. Hun­gary re­gained the lead via a de­flec­tion; Ron­aldo deftly flicked in a cross to equalise. Another de­flec­tion gave Hun­gary the lead again; Ron­aldo struck once more to se­cure a point.

Fight­ing stub­born op­po­si­tion, the weight of ex­pec­ta­tion and sheer unadul­ter­ated bad luck, Ron­aldo had al­most sin­gle-hand­edly steered his coun­try through to the last 16. Af­ter nar­rows wins over Croa­tia (in ex­tra time) and Poland (on penal­ties), Por­tu­gal were sud­denly in the semi-fi­nals with­out hav­ing won a game in nor­mal time. The cap­tain’s new lead­er­ship qual­i­ties be­came ap­par­ent dur­ing the shootout against Poland. With the scores level, Joao Moutinho stepped up. He’d missed when Spain elim­i­nated Por­tu­gal in 2012 and was now vis­i­bly hes­i­tant to walk to the spot. Ron­aldo strode for­ward and told his team-mate in brisk Por­tuguese: “Come on. You take a good penalty! You al­ways hit the ball well. If we lose, f**k it – it’s in God’s hands now. Come on. Be strong. You hit them well.” The penalty was hit firm and true, and into the net. In the semi-fi­nal, a typ­i­cally tow­er­ing Ron­aldo header and another as­sist for Nani to score sent Wales home and Por­tu­gal into the fi­nal.

The Stade de France show­down against the hosts con­firmed to wily coach Fer­nando San­tos ex­actly where he stood with his cap­tain.

Ron­aldo was strug­gling af­ter a firm but fair chal­lenge that left him clutch­ing his knee in pain. Af­ter ex­ten­sive on-field treat­ment and two at­tempts to carry on, the skip­per fi­nally col­lapsed to the pitch in tears, the fate of a na­tion seem­ingly set to leave with him. Mix­ing with the an­guish etched on his face was des­per­a­tion so in­tense that he ig­nored a moth stuck to his sweat-soaked brow. How­ever, for those ex­pect­ing a su­per­star tantrum to match the one cap­tured on cam­era while 3-2 down to Hun­gary, there was another sur­prise brew­ing.

Ron­aldo spent the rest of the fi­nal strid­ing along the touch­line as if he was the man­ager, shout­ing, ap­peal­ing and ca­jol­ing team-mates. It was the ul­ti­mate act of Ron­aldo-style lead­er­ship: it may have done the trick but, pri­mar­ily, it got ev­ery­one talk­ing about him.

Al­though fans on so­cial me­dia lapped it up, not ev­ery­one was quite so im­pressed. Some pun­dits sug­gested Ron­aldo had acted self­ishly. Speak­ing in the wake of the fi­nal, for­mer Ben­fica left-winger An­to­nio Si­moes, who scored against Brazil in Por­tu­gal’s first World Cup back in 1966, sug­gested that Ron­aldo had un­der­mined his man­ager.

“It’s not about if the re­sult was good or bad – it’s about look­ing and say­ing what should not hap­pen,” the then 72-year-old fumed.

“Do you be­lieve that the bench go­ing crazy, and Cris­tiano Ron­aldo in the role of leader, is why we won? If peo­ple think that, then I would say he should do that in all of the games.

“I’ve been in foot­ball for 50 years and never seen any­thing like that. None of the great play­ers would have done that. I knew great play­ers and great lead­ers: Pele, Euse­bio, Jo­han Cruyff, Diego Maradona... even with his per­son­al­ity, Maradona never did any­thing like that. I be­lieve Ron­aldo let his nerves get the bet­ter of him, as he wanted to win and show he was a leader. Do­ing that does not make you a leader.”

San­tos, Por­tu­gal’s ac­tual man­ager, was quick to praise his cap­tain for his im­promptu spot of the­atrics in the tech­ni­cal area.

“Ron­aldo was suf­fer­ing more than any other Por­tuguese, and all he told me was, ‘We are go­ing to win, we are go­ing to win’,” said San­tos. “And there’s some­thing bad in that? That makes the coach too weak? He’s an ex­cel­lent cap­tain and the best player in the world.”

Re­gard­less of whether it was for en­tirely self­less rea­sons, Ron­aldo was now lead­ing from the touch­line, al­beit on one leg. And, win­ning 1-0 af­ter ex­tra time, Por­tu­gal be­came Euro­pean cham­pi­ons. He’d got ev­ery­thing he wanted out of the tour­na­ment, bar the win­ning goal.

Ron­aldo will be back on the pitch in Rus­sia this sum­mer, and his aims will be more or less the same. Af­ter a slow start to 2017-18, he has been back to his un­stop­pable best since the turn of the year, scor­ing 27 goals in his first 18 games of 2018 and drag­ging Real Madrid into the last four of the Cham­pi­ons League.

His body lan­guage dur­ing the sec­ond leg of that quar­ter-fi­nal with Ju­ven­tus was telling. As his team blew their 3-0 lead from the away leg, Ron­aldo kept his cool. Af­ter each goal they con­ceded, he made a point of in­struct­ing his team-mates to fo­cus and stay calm. When Juve con­ceded a last-minute penalty and every­body in the sta­dium lost their head, in­clud­ing old pro Gigi Buf­fon, Ron­aldo was cool­ness per­son­i­fied. Af­ter a long wait, he waltzed up and wal­loped a mis­sile of a penalty into the top cor­ner. What pres­sure? Clearly, the 33-year-old hasn’t lost the self-be­lief of youth. “I’m the best player in his­tory, in the good mo­ments and the bad ones,” he mod­estly told France Foot­ball ear­lier this sea­son.

“I re­spect ev­ery­one’s pref­er­ences but I’ve never seen any­one bet­ter than me. I have al­ways thought that. No foot­baller can do the things I can. And there’s no player more com­plete than me. I play well with both feet; I’m quick, pow­er­ful and good with my head; I score goals; I make as­sists. There are guys who pre­fer Ney­mar or [Lionel] Messi, but I tell you: there’s no one more com­plete than me.”

Lead­ing Por­tu­gal to World Cup glory in Rus­sia is Ron­aldo’s tough­est chal­lenge yet. Suc­ceed­ing, though, would go a long way to prov­ing his the­ory – or at least help him to get one over Messi.

Be­low The ego has landed – Ron­aldo’s tre­ble puts Zla­tan in the shade in 2013

Top Ron­nie and San­tos steer Por­tu­gal to glory in the Euro 2016 Fi­nal Above CR7 has re­fused to let up in 2018 Left Rus­sia here we come: Cris­tiano hit 15 goals in World Cup qual­i­fy­ing

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