x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Euro 2012: The burden of being Cristiano Ronaldo

The Portuguese star has a good chance to lead his team to the silverware which could make him the best player of his generation, writes Richard Jolly.

Cristiano Ronaldo, left, could emerge from the shadow of Lionel Messi as his generation's best player if Portugal lift the Euro 2012 trophy. Francisco Leong / AFP
Cristiano Ronaldo, left, could emerge from the shadow of Lionel Messi as his generation's best player if Portugal lift the Euro 2012 trophy. Francisco Leong / AFP

Pity poor Cristiano Ronaldo. It is not a sentence written regularly or a sentiment expressed often. Not when his annual income is reportedly US$32 million (Dh117,539m), when his talents have brought global acclaim, when he scores goals at the sort of rate that suggests football is suddenly back in the 1920s.

With his preening self-regard and wholehearted fondness for bling culture, Ronaldo is not a figure to inspire a great deal of sympathy.

Yet strip away his image, ignore his earnings and there is a sense he is simply seeking fulfilment. The man who seems to have everything does not yet have his career-defining achievement or a position of unparalleled primacy in the game.

The soundtrack to Ronaldo's travels around Eastern Europe has been a taunting chorus of "Messi, Messi, Messi". He is defined, not by who he is but by who he is not: Lionel Messi. It is Barcelona against Real Madrid, modesty against seeming arrogance, undersized technician against strapping athlete. It is an argument that Messi, like Barcelona, is winning. They get the silverware and the superlatives.

In contrast, Ronaldo's brilliance is obscured. He is Raymond Poulidor to Messi's Jacques Anquetil, Chris Evert to his Martina Navratilova, Phil Mickelson to the Argentine's Tiger Woods. He is the sort of individual who, in another era, would have received recognition as the greatest of a generation.

It is why, when Ronaldo lined up against German, Danish and Dutch right-backs, he faced rivals on and off the pitch. It is all part of a bigger battle; the quest to unseat Messi.

And just maybe, even if only temporarily, the tide may be turning. Messi's 73-goal season seemed an example of the Argentine charting new territory to overshadow Ronaldo, scorer a mere 60 times for Real himself. Yet it was the Portuguese who won the Primera Liga and it is he who is emerging as the front runner for the Ballon d'Or. His case would be stronger had he converted his penalty in the Champions League semi-final against Bayern Munich and had Real gone on to win la decima.

Yet Euro 2012 provides a second attempt to conquer the continent. This is a personal crusade. Portugal are no one-man team - consider Nani's excellence on the right flank, Joao Moutinho's influence in midfield and the reliability of a diligent defence - yet it all revolves around Ronaldo.

He is a singular sort of captain, raging at teammates when a pass is misplaced and interpreting leading by example as meaning he has to do everything in attack. His match-winning goal against Czech Republic felt like the decisive blow in a personal contest: Ronaldo versus a back four, a whole team, an entire nation. He had eight attempts at the Czech goal, 12 at the Dutch net. His is the persistence of a driven man. Ronaldo may not defend, but he is unrelenting in his country's cause. His cause.

When he broke the Czech resistance, Portugal's two greatest players of the past were sat together. Eusebio, the top scorer in the 1966 World Cup, and Luis Figo, the 2001 World Player of the Year, were the figureheads in the greatest groups of Portuguese talent ever assembled.

Both reached World Cup semi-finals; Figo, a teenage Ronaldo by his side, was a beaten finalist in Euro 2004. The current collective are accomplished but less distinguished, with one exception. Neither Eusebio nor Figo faced quite as heavy a responsibility as Ronaldo has.

It is why a billing of Ronaldo against Spain may be a simplification, but is not completely incorrect. There is a theory that Alvaro Arbeloa is the weak link in the Spain side - although, to add a twist, he twice marked Messi brilliantly in his Liverpool days - and his Real colleague is Ronaldo's immediate opponent.

Portugal's hopes of a first trophy rest in his hands. A man who is redefining football - he is a 27-year-old forward with more than 300 goals for club and country and could finish as the record scorer of the most successful club in European Cup history - could rebrand Portugal as champions. If so, he will be reminiscent of an Argentine: not Messi, but Diego Maradona, the inspiration for the World Cup win in 1986.


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