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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 June 2018

Ronaldo and Quaresma: Once Sporting Lisbon prospects together, still a key double-act for Portugal

Both players appeared destined for successful careers, but while one went on to achieve greatness, the other never quite fulfilled his early promise

Cristiano Ronaldo, left, and Ricardo Quaresma, second left, combined once again to guide Portugal to victory over Egypt. Fabrice Coffrini / AFP
Cristiano Ronaldo, left, and Ricardo Quaresma, second left, combined once again to guide Portugal to victory over Egypt. Fabrice Coffrini / AFP

Eleven years ago this weekend, Portugal put on a memorable show for a home crowd in Lisbon. They walloped Belgium 4-0 in a Euro 2008 qualifier, all the goals coming in the second half at the Alvalade arena. Three of the goals drew special applause because they came from two young graduates of Sporting, the usual tenants of the stadium.

One was already the towering flag-bearer of Sporting’s reputation as one of European football’s finest academies. Cristiano Ronaldo, then 22, has since become Portugal’s greatest goalscorer, and perhaps the country’s finest player of all time.

The other sportinguista who celebrated that night was the enigmatic Ricardo Quaresma. The pair played on either wing, Quaresma set up a headed goal for Ronaldo, his first of the evening. Fourteen minutes later a Ronaldo pass gave Quaresma his goal.

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On Friday night, in Zurich, the old double-act, the Ricky and Ronny show, was in action again, as Portugal came from 1-0 down to a Mohamed Salah goal against Egypt in the first of their two spring World Cup preparation friendlies to achieve a morale-boosting win.

Quaresma, on as a substitute, to give the team what manager Fernando Santos called “more agility”, delivered a measured, lightly curled cross from the left flank for Ronaldo to head an equaliser. That was in the second minute of stoppage time. In the fourth, a Quaresma free-kick, from the right flank, pinpointed Ronaldo’s forehead again, and the game was won.

Thus Ronaldo reached 81 international goals, a statistic to put alongside the handsome monuments to goalscoring brilliance he has assembled at Real Madrid, at Manchester United and across the elite competitions of a sport he has dominated for a decade.

He is now three goals, a hat-trick, away from matching 1950's Hungary great Ferenc Puskas as the greatest accumulator of international goals for any European nation. And in international football, he is inclined to acknowledge he has a debt for that to his friend from childhood, Quaresma.

Once upon a time, the story goes, when Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson was keen on recruiting a teenaged winger from Sporting, the choice between Quaresma, a year older, and Ronaldo, was genuinely a dilemma.

As it happened, in the summer of 2003 Quaresma moved to Barcelona, one of his seven club employers – UAE’s Al Ahli among them – while Ronaldo transferred to United and, as it turned out, onto his fast-track to greatness.

The contrast, 15 years on, is stark. Ronaldo, the kid with all the assets and with the arrogant streak, has his five Ballons D’Or and four Uefa Champions League titles. Quaresma, the young man tricks in his dribbling and his unique delivery of the ball but with an errant streak, has his list of Champions League-winning clubs – Porto, Chelsea, Barcelona, Internazionale – but was never featuring for any of them when they lifted the European Cup.

A matured Quaresma did feature strongly, though, when Portugal became European champions in 2016. He replaced the injured Ronaldo 25 minutes into the final against host and favourites France, and 100 minutes later the pair were celebrating a historic triumph, their country’s first major title.

Portugal would never have got there without their double-act. The Portuguese, edgy through the early stages of the tournament, needed the Ronaldo goal Quaresma created to gain a point against Hungary that put them in the knockout round. They needed the extra-time Quaresma winner set up by Ronaldo that eliminated Croatia in the last 16.

In all, Ricky and Ronny have combined, as assister and scorer, for 13 goals in Portugal colours, and will hope to be on the pitch together at some stage in their friendly against the Netherlands on Monday night, in Geneva, for the 49th time as colleagues in a national jersey.

“Cristiano is one of those players who can win you a game in an instant,” said Quaresma ahead of the contest with the Dutch, “and I am just happy to be able to be a help to the team.”

Santos will want 34-year-old Quaresma’s quixotic skills in Russia this June, perhaps for primary use from the substitutes bench. The wily veteran manager says “only Ronaldo is a certainty for the squad at this stage” but he has a firm idea of the mix of younger players and experienced men he wants at his side when Portugal take on Spain in their opening World Cup fixture in Sochi. Ronaldo does, too, and his old ally is one of them.