USA TODAY US Edition
Ronaldo on rocky, raucous ride in Euros
Sometimes it is better to be lucky than to be good, and Cristiano Ronaldo has been a little bit of both in the European Championship.
By common acceptance soccer’s second-best player, and perhaps its most divisive, Ronaldo finds his hopes of finally winning a major international tournament alive after Portugal survived a tense penalty-kick shootout against Poland in Thursday’s quarterfinal in Marseille, France.
It has been quite a ride. The game, tied 1-1 after extra time, was more struggle than spectacle, yet Portugal’s trip to the final four has had no shortage of drama.
Ronaldo has been at the center of it all. He upset the tournament’s most likable nation (Iceland), staved off elimination by tying its toughest (Hungary) and broke the hearts of its most inform foe (Croatia), before using penalty kicks to oust a Polish side that lacked attacking courage.
Through it all, Ronaldo has been his maddening self, never hitting the heights of his generational ability yet coming through when it truly counts. At Stade Velodrome, he spurned a collection of scoring chances, was refused a penalty kick after getting knocked over in the box, whined at officials and teammates, preened, pouted and sulked.
Yet he also stepped up at the hour of reckoning, delivering a flawless penalty kick to begin the shootout, a finale that would be decided by a single miss — when Jakub Blaszczykowski’s effort was saved by Portugal’s Rui Patricio.
Portugal got a major slice of fortune when its Group F thirdplace finish landed it in the weaker top half of the knockout bracket rather than the loaded lower portion. It will take on the winner of Friday’s quarterfinal between Wales and Belgium, with a spot in the final at stake. Germany, Italy and host France occupy the other side, along with the awe-inspiring underdog Icelanders.
One of the oddest things about soccer’s modern generation is that its two standout figures have failed to clinch international glory, a fact that frustrates both to the point of distraction.
Lionel Messi’s latest failure with Argentina, losing in the final of the Copa America at New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium on Sunday, prompted him to retire, at least for now, from national team duty.
If Ronaldo cannot break through in France, you wonder how much more appetite he would have for the travails of the international game at 31.
The wait has been long. How different it must have seemed in 2004, in Ronaldo’s first major tournament, also the Euros. The event was staged in Portugal that year, and Ronaldo was a 19-yearold with the soccer world at the tips of his dancing feet. He has more than lived up to the lofty expectations foisted upon him as a teenager, becoming the only man to mount any kind of challenge to Messi’s title as the greatest player of the modern age.
However, that debut tournament in 2004 also was the closest he has come to glory with his country, as Portugal lost to underdog Greece in the final. Two years later, Ronaldo took the team to the World Cup semifinals, followed by a Euro quarterfinal performance in 2008.
A penalty shootout defeat in the 2012 Euro semifinals was sandwiched by two disappointing World Cup campaigns, and suddenly Ronaldo is no longer the youngster of the group. Far from it: He is the elder statesman, even if some of his antics verge on the juvenile when certain decisions fail to go his way. There are new faces, new reasons to give Portugal hope despite its patchy run through this event.
Renato Sanches, 18, is seen as the heir apparent to Ronaldo’s status as figurehead of the national team. Sanches put the team back in contention Thursday, tying the score with a fierce low drive in the 33rd minute.
Sanches became the youngest player to score in the knockout stage of the Euros, beating the record set by Ronaldo — 12 years earlier to the very day.
If nothing else, that should be enough to remind Ronaldo that time waits for no man. Sanches was 6 in 2004.
For Ronaldo time and thus opportunities are running thin. He will never get a better chance than this, with the soccer gods having smiled on the journey and a potentially glorious end in sight.