Yes, it’s all about Ronaldo
The world stage is set for CR7, Portugal’s leader and talisman
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.
“I’M THE BEST PLAYER In HISTORY. I HAVE ALWAYS THOUGHT THAT. no FOOTBALLER CAN DO THE THINGS I CAN. THERE’S no PLAYER MORE COMPLETE THAN ME”
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