The Cristiano Ronaldo at Euro 2016 is a force on the wane. A three-times world player of the year, the headline act for Portugal is entering the zone marked high-end functional footballer as with each outing the dazzling performer who wrests contests his way recedes in the distance.
At 31 this is understandable. Unlike England’s 1966 World Cup triumph, a sonnet by Shakespeare or a burgundy grand cru, elite athletes do not age well. Ronaldo’s spluttering stop-start display in this goalless draw with Austria was the latest evidence. As a presence, Ronaldo, with his matinee idol grin, Tarzan physique and aura of other, remains the numero uno, le grand fromage.
In this regard the modest demeanour and for-the-team-first ethos of Lionel Messi is a pale shadow of the man from Madeira. But Messi remains the central figure in games because of his play rather than his reputation and sideshow antics. The Argentinian still demands the ball in all areas because the first thought is: “I can hurt the opposition from anywhere.” This was once the Ronaldo way. Not any more. His is now the safer sentiment of: “My moment must be chosen carefully.”
Austria may be the 10th-ranked nation in the world but would a defence of Florian Klein, Sebastian Prödl, Lukas Hinteregger and Christian Fuchs really have stymied the powers of a 21-, 25- or 28-year-old Ronaldo?
Because this is what Marcel Koller’s back four did at a canter here in Saturday’s late kick-off. There was a wait to see if Ronaldo would drop deep from the No9 position in which Fernando Santos fielded him, in an attempt to pull the match around, but he stayed in the same role for the full 90 minutes.
For Manchester United and then Real Madrid, the in-pomp Ronaldo was never passive. He was a fearless bucking bronco of a forward who with ease and great delight tore through teams at will to ensure their challenge became one of mere damage limitation.
In Real’s scruffy 1-0 Champions League semi-final defeat of Manchester City last month Ronaldo was peripheral. In the San Siro showdown with Atlético Madrid that ended in penalty shoot-out victory and an 11th European Cup for Real, Ronaldo was peripheral.
Well, he was until the lottery of the spot-kicks. For the decisive penalty up stepped Ronaldo to give Jan Oblak no chance with a bullet that beat Atlético’s goalkeeper to his left. Yet when Ronaldo did become a factor against Austria to win Portugal an 80th-minute penalty, converting this one proved beyond him.
Now was the time for the No7 to mark his record 128th cap by grabbing the glory with a late winner. But the manner in which the effort came off Robert Almer’s right post and went safe was a neat precis of where Ronaldo now is: still a riveting watch but not the universe beater of days of yore.
Afterwards he said: “It’s a reason to be proud – it was a goal to be the most-capped international player and to be the national team’s top scorer. But I’m a bit sad because this wasn’t the way I wanted to break this record. We wanted to win. This was not how I envisaged it.
“We had a lot of chances and we did well, but we weren’t able to finish. I also missed some chances – a penalty and some others. But that’s part of football. We need to continue to believe, and once again we thank the Portuguese fans who were here and also the ones who were supporting us from elsewhere. I’m sure Portugal will give their best in the next match, and if you try you’ll always make it.”
Portugal’s record after two matches here is no wins, one goal, two draws and two points, as they head to Lyon on Wednesday knowing a win over Hungary is a must.
“We, the players, need to think that it’s still possible,” Ronaldo added. “If we win, we qualify. And also the Portuguese people, the fans who love Portugal, they also have to believe. The bad won’t last for ever, so we need to believe that things will get better.”
They could, indeed, still do it. But on the personal level that has always driven Ronaldo, it appears the best of times are gone. CR7 is still the most hypnotic of dramatis personae but for differing reasons now. The Ronaldo sideshow is becoming the main event.
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