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Some thoughts on Ronaldo and Portugal

‘Poetic justice’ perhaps isn’t a phrase you would immediately associate with Portugal’s Euro 2016 win against host nation France this week.

This year’s Euros will be remembered for many things: Iceland, Will Grigg on Fire, tears, and moths. And it prominently didn’t begin on a good note, with ugly scenes of fans fighting marring the group stages. It’s not a new phenomenon that the gritty realities of the real world are jarringly juxtaposed with the ticker tape escapist one that an international football tournament offers, but for me as an observer from afar, the current geopolitical context gave France 2016 a certain edge. It’s perhaps fitting then that there wasn’t really an outright favourite this year, and that the tournament wasn’t won by the team that played the prettiest football.

As Craig Burley observed, Portugal “bored” their way to the title. For the most part, they were dull. They were not poetic. A team that finishes third in their group, by most people’s reckoning, should not go on to win a knock out tournament. A team that could only muster one win within the bounds of 90-minutes, should not go on to win a knock out tournament. Realistically, most of us only began to think that Portugal might win the tournament when they beat tournament darlings Wales in the semi-final.

But Portugal’s win is a timely one. And, for the hopeless romantic (a charge I’ll occasionally admit to), Ronaldo’s moment of finally winning an international trophy – albeit from the sidelines, of all places – was a sight worth seeing. Love him or hate him – and I’ve criticised him often – he deserves this.

Portugal’s win is in keeping with adaptations to Ronaldo’s game, in which he has forgone the dynamism and unpredictability he announced himself to the Premier League with as a teenager (Or maybe he hasn’t: we’ve become so accustomed to seeing him perform sumptuous tricks and flicks with the regularity by which you or I might successfully complete a ten-yard pass, that a flurry of stepovers or a backheeled goal are no longer remarkable acts).

We tend to think of Ronaldo as the archetypical individual player, oft’ criticised in his youth for being a show pony, with heartstopping skill but little product to show for it (other than that in his hair): this now translates to arriving at games with his noise-cancelling headphones (note the gold tints), Ronaldo the movie and, of course, various brand endorsements cluttering his social media feeds.

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Note the gold tint

But as Enzo pointed out, Euro 2016 cast Ronaldo in a new light: as a leader and, dare I say it, a true team man. He carried Portugal through the tournament both on the pitch and from the sidelines.

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No need to take my words literally, Ronaldo.

Twelve years ago Ronaldo was a promising rookie player coming into the squad at the tail end of Portugal’s so-called golden generation, which included Luis Figo, Rui Costa, Deco: all players either at their peak or rapidly approaching it. 2004 was seen as an ideal opportunity for a proud footballing nation to acquire its first international trophy: the tournament’s hosts fusing a legendary old guard with exciting young players. Portugal’s 2004 story isn’t too dissimilar from France’s this year; there were plenty of sentimental reasons for the neutral observer to want the host nation to win, only for their relatively dour opponents (back then, of course, Greece) to have discarded the script.

2004 is further echoed in Portugal’s 2016 squad. Ronaldo is now the old guard, William Carvalho and João Mário (members of Portugal’s 2015 under-21 European Championship finalist team) the new. And it would be remiss not to mention the manner in which Nani, who has always been in Ronaldo’s shadow both for Manchester United and Portugal, stepped up today. Ronaldo’s insistent strapping of his captain’s armband onto Nani before being carried off on a stretcher had a certain symbolic quality to it: this was a chance for Nani to take on the responsibility and promise it was once hoped he’d fulfil.

Paradoxically we speak of Ronaldo in terms of decline. It’s testament to the quality of the player that he can score over 50 goals, win the Champions League, become the European Championship’s joint leading goalscorer, the leading European Championship appearance holder in a season, and consider this par for the course. But now his relentless focus on targets and statistics give the impression of a man who realises he won’t be playing forever, and needs to tick every possible record and achievement off his list as soon as possible.

His graceless tantrum after the Iceland game came, it bears remembering, at a time when Lionel Messi was still playing for Argentina (and so still in with the chance to win an international trophy). This, coupled with the strange hurling of a reporter’s microphone into a lake, suggested Ronaldo was a man under pressure – and further accentuated the narrative of decline.

The retirement from international football of Messi, Ronaldo’s perpetual rival and point of comparison, marks the beginning of the end of an era. For years we’ve watched the two compete for team and individual honours in a kind of tit-for-tat: their exchanging of the UEFA Champions League top goalscorer accolade, La Liga, the annual Ballon d’Or race. Whether Messi will succumb to pressure and retract his international retirement remains to be seen, but there’s something eerily apt that one of the two undisputed kings of world football finally triumphed in winning an international trophy while the other effectively gave up the chase. If the scenario was mooted a month ago you probably wouldn’t have bet on it happening like this. But here we are, with one of the greatest players in the history of the sport retired from international duty at 29, while the other holds a trophy aloft.

It’s been a long five weeks in football.

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Ella Reilly

Waiheke Islander currently in exile in Wellington. Supporter of Nottingham Forest and England, through thick and thin (there's been plenty of that). As a player is somewhat averse to the offside rule.

3 replies

  1. “A team that finishes third in their group, by most people’s reckoning, should not go on to win a knock out tournament.”

    If that was so, there’d be no point letting such 3rd place teams out of the group stage into the next rounds.

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