The Portuguese media are worried. Their fancied team are without a win at the European Championship, have one goal from 18 shots on target and must beat Hungary on Wednesday to guarantee a place in the last 16. But a weightier matter has prompted their concern. Cristiano Ronaldo looks miserable in training.
Portugal’s pre-match training session was held at their Marcoussis base south of Paris on Tuesday under Uefa orders to protect the pitch at Stade de Lyon. Only the first 15 minutes were open to the media and Ronaldo could have transformed into the laughing policeman the moment the cameras left but his apparent state of mind was gauged in that quarter hour. If misery is indeed the prevailing mood, Ronaldo has reason.
He entered the tournament seeking to become the first person to score at four consecutive European Championships, the leading goalscorer in the history of the finals (a title he holds in qualifying) and maintain Portugal’s proud record of never failing to reach the quarter-finals of the competition. Thus far, he has taken Luis Figo’s appearance record for his country (128 and counting) and plenty of flak for his petulant reaction to Iceland’s performance in the opening game plus his 80th-minute penalty miss in the goalless draw with Austria. The Portuguese media, in fairness, fear the effects on their captain when, despite claims to the contrary in the build-up to the tournament, the team depends on its world class talent as much as ever.
Fernando Santos, the Portugal coach, was asked whether the morose, sad Ronaldo who appeared at training was an additional problem before a game he has determined a must-win. “The day after the first game you said Cristiano was all smiles,” Santos replied. “After the first match your stories were that Cristiano was all smiles and now it is that he’s not smiling. I am sure he will get over everything and do what he does best. He’s always proved that what he does best is score and I’m sure he will do everything to be anxiety free to score.”
Ronaldo has not scored in 36 free-kick attempts at major tournaments but Santos insisted: “He will carry on taking free-kicks and penalties. We have someone who is the standard-bearer for our country, and we do love him, the Portuguese love Cristiano.”
Portugal will face England in Nice on Monday should they qualify as runners-up. In truth, all the sides in Group F may prefer the runners-up route given the alternatives. The group winners play the runners-up in Group E in Toulouse on Sunday. As things stand, that would be Belgium. Should a third-placed team qualify then Croatia, the winners of Group D, or Germany await in the last 16. Roy Hodgson’s team appear the more inviting option by far in that company. “I don’t care who will be our next opponent,” said Santos. “I just want there to be a next opponent.”
Hungary will remain top with a point against Portugal providing Iceland do not beat Austria in Paris. Bernd Storck, the Hungary coach, said: “Who would have thought that before this last match we would be top of the group and that Portugal absolutely has to win to qualify? It’s a very big surprise and I can’t compliment my team enough.”
Santos claimed he is “too old to feel pressure” and has vowed that Portugal will not be home until 11 July – the day after the final – and they will return to a heroes’ reception. Some boast. “I said we won’t be home until the 11th because I believe in my players, that’s all,” he said. “We didn’t win so far but we did everything to win. Why wouldn’t I believe in my players now? Why would I be a pessimist all of a sudden? Two days ago everyone was so confident. We played one of the best matches and no everyone has doubt. Why should this be? We are committed, we have quality players – why wouldn’t I believe in them? To not believe in them makes no sense at all. I believe we will get there.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010