In the tunnel prior to the Euro 2016 clash between Portugal and Austria, Cristiano Ronaldo stood at the front of the line and shared a joke with a plucky ball kid. Ronaldo, athletic, bronzed and muscled, grinned as the cameras focused on him. The smile remained as he made his way onto the Paris pitch and exchanged pleasantries with the referee, knowing full well that this was his stage - that it always is.
The smile is, in some respect, an acknowledgement that with his success, with his looks and with his athletic ability, he should be happy. It’s a reassuring nod to his millions of fans: all is well. Yet it’s also a plea: a plea for leniency as a player with almost supernatural ability grows older and is asked, yet again, to be the flagbearer for his national side.
The Ronaldo of Portugal is different to the Ronaldo of Real Madrid. In the famous all-whites of Spain’s capital city club, the Portuguese winger is sharing the field with the best young players in the world: Bale, Marcelo, Kroos, Benzema, Rodriguez. Each one a superstar for their respective countries; Bale the Welsh wizard, Kroos the highly-coveted German; Rodriguez, the Colombian wunderkid; Benzema the errant yet inspired Frenchman. For Portugal it’s a little different, and the great Ronaldo must content himself with the service of Nani and Ricardo Queresma, two journeymen who ply their trade in the Turkish superliga. Bale and co. are among the 10 best players in the world. Nani and Queresma would not make a list of the top 200.
Yet with 83 minutes on the clock and Austria hanging on, Ronaldo did what he always does: he singlehandedly had an impact on the game. Sniffing an opportunity, the Portuguese peeled away from the Austrian defence and hurtled into the box, spying the ball and waiting for a tap in. It is the sort of run Ronaldo has been dining out on for ten years, and one that, over the course of 90 minutes, almost always produces a goal. This time, with muscle memory fully in effect and his body primed to receive the pass, Ronaldo found himself being rugby tackled to the ground. A shrill whistle: penalty. The sort of penalty Ronaldo is awarded time and time again because he reads space better than anyone, and sends inferior players into a state of desperation.
Only, when he stepped up to the spot, the unexpected happened. He missed.
In a tournament where Gareth Bale, his Real Madrid teammate and heir, is dragging an amateur Wales team to the brink of qualification, Ronaldo has failed to score once. He is 31 and despite his perfected smile, his age is showing. Ronaldo, the eternal athlete, the most famous sportsman in the world, is fallible.
It’s a testament to Ronaldo’s greatness that after the match, the BBC’s Gary Lineker (an accomplished scorer himself in the 1980s) was only interested in talking to panellists Rio Ferdinand, Jermaine Jenas and Alan Shearer about one player.
It’s a fact of life that Ronaldo is judged by different standards. 260 goals for Real Madrid in 236 matches has made sure of that. And it’s true: he has been below par this tournament; has been below par at most tournaments for Portugal. He hasn’t scored a freekick in 36 attempts at World Cups or Euros; he has missed 4 of his last 5 penalties, and he looks a yard short of pace. For a player who scores 50 goals a season for his club, Ronaldo has every right to take freekicks and penalties for his country. But the implication is that Ronaldo is slowly showing his age. Up against low-quality opposition who stick to him like glue and hack his ankles, he’s finding it harder to make a difference.
On the balance of things, though, did Ronaldo really play badly? He scored a goal with a brilliant glancing header, only to be ruled offside. He hit a magnificent rasping left-footed drive that was destined to break the net, only to be saved magnificently at the last minute. And he missed a penalty, striking it cleanly and beautifully, but aiming for too much precision, and striking the upright.
Contrast that with the performance of Austria’s star man, David Alaba, who was utterly anonymous. Or Nani, who spurned gilt-edged chances; or Marko Arnautovic, a powerful young gun whose main contribution was to argue about who was going to take a free-kick. Looking back at the anonymous supporting cast, one thing is clear: Ronaldo is still box office.
No, he didn’t take his chances, but he stood out as he always does; as so few players manage to. The great players live long in the memory, and by this estimation, Ronaldo is perhaps the greatest of them all. He sets tongues wagging, he throws tantrums, and he wears Hollywood smiles. But he makes the headlines and he’s simply the most absorbing player to watch in modern football.
While the smile might not always be natural, deep down, Cristinao Ronaldo doesn’t need anyone to reassure him of his talents. This is a man that has driven himself to the brink of perfection on the back of self-belief alone. And make no mistake, ageing body or not, he’ll be back.
In two months’ time, he’ll take to the Bernebeau pitch in Real Madrid colours, heaping misery on hapless professional football teams, scoring goals provided to him by some of the best players in the world. Players who have his technical ability, his speed, but not his uniqueness. For Ronaldo is a once-off, a freak - a man who has pushed himself to the very limit and changed football for good.
And I celebrate him for it.