Football: Reborn Ronaldo Gets to Grips With Tournament Jinx
Donetsk, Ukraine. Even in the criticism he receives, Cristiano Ronaldo seems entwined with his great rival, Lionel Messi.
The world’s two pre-eminent players score goals with jaw-dropping regularity at club level, but both have been castigated for their failure to reproduce their domestic form in the international arena.
However, having struggled to escape from Messi’s shadow during the 2011-12 season, despite the fact his Real Madrid side pipped Messi’s Barcelona to the La Liga crown, Ronaldo is stealing a march at Euro 2012.
So often accused of failing to spark for his country at major tournaments, Ronaldo is putting the record straight after a pair of scintillating performances against the Netherlands and the Czech Republic.
In both games he was the man of the match by such an obvious margin that it was a wonder the stadium announcers in Kharkiv and Warsaw even found it necessary to broadcast the news to the crowd.
An insistent, incorrigible attacking presence on the Portuguese left, Ronaldo bent both games to his will to leave his country facing a semi-final showdown on Wednesday against neighbors and reigning European champions Spain.
Over the course of the two games, he scored three goals, hit the post four times, and seemed to carry a threat from anywhere within 40 yards of the opposition goal.
He now stands level with Germany’s Mario Gomez as the joint-top scorer still in the tournament, while just two games separate him and his colleagues from the greatest triumph in the history of the Portuguese national team.
A member of the side shocked by Greece in the Euro 2004 final, the 19-year-old Ronaldo’s tears expressed the heartbreak of a disbelieving host nation.
Eight years later, that cruel July day at Lisbon’s Estadio da Luz remains the closest Ronaldo has come to winning a major honour with his country.
Scorned at the 2006 World Cup for his role in the dismissal of Manchester United team-mate Wayne Rooney during the quarter-final win over England, he saw Portugal fall to France in the last four.
He plundered eight goals in qualifying for Euro 2008 but scored just once in the final tournament as Portugal lost to Germany in the quarter-finals, while the 2010 World Cup told a similar story.
One year on from his record-breaking 94 million euros ($131.6 million) transfer to Madrid, he was tipped to dominate in South Africa but again scored only once, in a 7-0 drubbing of North Korea, before Portugal lost to Spain in the last 16.
It was therefore with a great deal of baggage upon his shoulders that he arrived at Portugal’s Euro 2012 training camp in the Polish town of Opalenica, but after firing blanks against Germany and Denmark, he has suddenly found form.
“He is at the zenith of his career,” said Portugal team-mate Ricardo Costa after Ronaldo’s fine 79th-minute header eliminated the Czechs on Thursday.
“He is the complete player. There’s no point looking for adjectives to define his qualities.”
Lambasted by the media for squandering two one-on-one chances in the 3-2 win over Denmark, he now has his country’s press eating from the palm of his hand.
“The best in the world,” was how A Bola and Record heralded his performance against the Czech Republic, with Publico lauding his “limitless repertoire”.
For all the similarities in their goalscoring records, Messi and Ronaldo are very different players, and yet the comparisons persist.
Taunted with chants of “Messi! Messi!” by Denmark’s fans, Ronaldo snapped after the final whistle, telling reporters: “Do you know what Messi was doing this time last year?
“He was going out of the Copa America in the quarter-finals.”
Television viewers, meanwhile, were treated to the sight of a mocking Ronaldo apparently mouthing the word ‘Messi’ to a pitchside camera after scoring against the Czechs.
Messi, it seems, is under Ronaldo’s skin, but if the Portuguese captain maintains his form over the week ahead, he will not have to share the headlines with anyone.