It was 10 years ago on Saturday that Zinedine Zidane headbutted Marco Materazzi in Berlin, ending his career and his reign as Europe’s best footballer. Thierry Henry had been substituted minutes before and, having passed his peak at Arsenal, could no longer claim that title either. Within a few months a 21-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo had claimed that crown for himself.
What is so remarkable, 10 years on, is how Ronaldo still has a grip on that same title. No European player in the modern era could claim to have been at the top for so long. Over the last few years, since turning 30, Ronaldo has managed to hold off the challenges of the next generation of European players. Time will eventually catch up with Ronaldo, but so far Gareth Bale, Antoine Griezmann and Eden Hazard have not.
That has been the story of Euro 2016 so far, as Ronaldo has delivered for Portugal over and over again. After the petulant rage against Iceland’s “small mentality”, Ronaldo at his worst, we have been treated to Ronaldo at his best: powerful, decisive, at time unstoppable. “If there is an anti-Ronaldo plan,” Didier Deschamps shrugged yesterday, “no-one has found it yet.”
Even more impressive is the fact that this has been a more mature Ronaldo, a 31-year-old embracing the responsibilities of seniority and leadership. This is the most team-oriented Ronaldo football has ever seen, a Ronaldo who does not scorn his less-gifted team-mates but instead brings them with him.
It was Ronaldo who dragged Portugal out of the group stage, scoring the two equalisers against Hungary in Lyon, which scraped them through in third place. It was Ronaldo who led the charge with four minutes left against Croatia, seeing his shot saved before Ricardo Quaresma bundled in the rebound. It was Ronaldo who scored Portugal’s opening penalty kick against Poland, in a shoot-out they went on to win 5-4.
Then, against Wales in Lyon, against the one player who can claim to be as important for Real Madrid as Ronaldo is, or as complete in his skills, Ronaldo did it all again. The first was a header that no other player in the world could have scored. The second was finished by Nani after Ronaldo drove the ball towards goal.
In the ocean of goals that is Ronaldo’s career, these are just four drops. But Ronaldo’s performances as a whole, his conduct as captain and his leadership all point to a player who is more mature, thoughtful and focused as he now aims for a different type of achievement.
Ronaldo rose to head Portugal in front against Wales (Getty)
Because for a top player like Ronaldo, who has spent the last 13 years at two of the biggest clubs in the world, international football must be difficult. His team-mates are less good, the coaches are less good and the facilities are less good. It would be easy enough to be petulant, frustrated or disengaged, but this year the opposite is true. Ronaldo has taken a genuine responsibility for how Portugal do, and has made their success a personal mission.
Ronaldo has not clicked with every manager he has worked with in his career, but has what one source describes as an “extraordinary relationship” with veteran coach Fernando Santos. He was in charge at Sporting Lisbon for the first few weeks of the 2003-04 season, before Ronaldo left for Manchester United, and the mutual respect between the two has stuck ever since. Even though Santos was coaching PAOK and the Greek national team for the peak years of Ronaldo’s career, since he took over the Portugal job he has got more out of Ronaldo than any national team coach before.
Santos knows exactly how to motivate Ronaldo and how to get through to him. When Santos took over he told Ronaldo that he could play wherever he chose, as long as he worked hard for his team-mates, and tried to bring them with him. That is precisely what he has done. Ronaldo is never going to be ‘one of the lads’ in the Portuguese dressing room, but he is a conduit between players and coach, and all the more important for that. He is loving this new role so much that he cannot wait to take this young team with him to the World Cup in Russia in two years time.
The paternal influence of Santos is why Ronaldo has arrived at this tournament with far more commitment to his team-mates, and to the group, than he has often showed in the past. That is why when Portugal’s quarter-final against Poland went to penalties, it was Ronaldo who was cajoling and encouraging Joao Moutinho to take a kick.
Four years ago when Portugal were knocked out of Euro 2012 by Spain in the semi-finals on penalties, Ronaldo did not even get a chance to take one. He had allocated himself the fifth kick, but the shoot-out was lost before he had the chance to take it. His grandstanding had cost him his chance to make a difference.
This time, though, Ronaldo had learned his lesson. Against Poland last month, he did not wait but took and scored the first kick, setting the tone for a shoot-out which Portugal won 5-4. That, in short, is the difference between the new Ronaldo and the old Ronaldo.
All this work means that Ronaldo has the chance tonight to achieve something even harder and more historic than all of his individual achievements. He has certainly made the most of his talent, winning three Ballons d’Or, and has played in successful teams with other talented players, winning three Champions Leagues. But if he can guide Portugal to victory over France he will have made the most of other players’ talents too, dragging a team up to his level, the ultimate achievement for an individual in this team sport.