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Cristiano Ronaldo cannot rage against the dying of the light forever

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For a second, Cristiano Ronaldo looked like he might be on the edge of tears. Then suddenly, no, he was over the edge. The floodgates had opened and he was bawling now. In front of a capacity crowd in Frankfurt and a huge global television audience, arguably the most famous athlete on the planet was in floods of tears.

And there was still a game to be won, a place in the Euro 2024 quarter-finals to be secured.

It was astonishing to witness. The Portugal captain had endured another frustrating evening, still chasing his first goal of the tournament, and now, having been given the chance to break Slovenia’s resistance, he had seen a penalty saved brilliantly by goalkeeper Jan Oblak. The tension and anguish that had been building inside him suddenly boiled over.

Ronaldo had missed penalties before, sometimes in highly pressurised circumstances. He had cried on the pitch before: tears of sadness, tears of joy. But this was different because the game wasn’t finished. At 39, playing in what he admits will be his final European Championship, he was crying not for a lost match but, it seemed, for the waning of his powers. They resembled the tears of a matinee idol who realises he is facing his final curtain.

For once he looked so vulnerable, so fallible, so… human. As Portugal’s players formed a huddle during half-time in extra time, they looked up and saw what looked like a broken man. One by one, they tried to raise him. His former Manchester United team-mates Bruno Fernandes and Diogo Dalot grabbed him, as if to remind him who he was — who he still is. Fulham midfielder Joao Palhinha and Manchester City defender Ruben Dias did similar.

Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal


A tearful Ronaldo is consoled by Dalot at half-time of extra time (Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)

It was remarkable that Portugal coach Roberto Martinez kept him out there in the circumstances. Ronaldo looked done. He barely touched the ball for the remainder of extra time as Slovenia, for the first time all evening, began to look the more likely to snatch victory.

It went down to a penalty shootout. What if Ronaldo missed again?

He didn’t. This time, he slammed his shot to the other side, Oblak’s right, and looked immensely relieved when the net bulged. That took courage, but there was no bravado in his reaction. It wasn’t the time for his trademark celebration. Instead, his clasped his hands to the Portugal supporters in apology.

Within three minutes, Portugal’s players and supporters were celebrating victory. Their goalkeeper Diogo Costa was the hero, saving all three of Slovenia’s kicks while Ronaldo, Bruno Fernandes and Bernardo Silva converted theirs. It was an extraordinary performance from Costa, who had also made a vital save to deny Slovenia forward Benjamin Sesko late in extra time. Ronaldo, overcome with relief, embraced and thanked him.

“There was initial sadness — and joy at the end,” the five-time Ballon d’Or winner told Portuguese TV station RTP afterwards. “That’s what football brings: inexplicable moments from the eighth (minute) to the 80th. That’s what happened today. Did I have the opportunity to give the team the lead? I couldn’t do it.”

Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal


Ronaldo apologetically celebrates scoring in the shootout (Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)

He referred to his penalty record over the course of the season — “I didn’t fail once” — but he must know deep down that it is more than his penalty-taking that is under scrutiny at Euro 2024. Excluding the penalty shootout (as the record books always do), he is yet to score in his four appearances at the tournament. Other than a penalty against Ghana in Portugal’s opening game of the 2022 World Cup, he has now gone eight appearances without scoring in a major tournament.

Ronaldo scored 50 goals in 51 appearances in all competitions for Al Nassr last season. He has also scored 10 goals in nine appearances in the Euro 2024 qualifying campaign, but half of those came against Luxembourg and Liechtenstein. He is the record international goalscorer in men’s football, with a faintly preposterous record of 130 goals in 211 appearances — but the highest-ranked teams he has scored against in the past three years are Switzerland (19th), Qatar (35th), Slovakia (45th) and the Republic of Ireland (60th).

Yet he takes so many shots. So many shots — a total of 20 so far at this tournament, which is at least seven more than any other player. So many promising attacks and dangerous free kicks are sacrificed at the altar of self-indulgence. There was one free kick against Slovenia where, even in a stadium full of die-hard Ronaldo fans, he must have been the only person who thought he was going to score. Sure enough, his shot sailed way beyond the far post.

Then there are the shots he isn’t able to take because, as formidable as his physique might still appear, his acceleration, speed and power are no longer quite what they were. There was a point in the first half where Bernardo Silva drifted infield from the right wing and produced what looked the most delightful cross towards him at the far post. Ronaldo leapt but couldn’t reach it and, not for the first time at this tournament, you were left thinking he would have buried a chance like that in his prime.

But his prime was a long time ago now. Longer ago than he perhaps cares to imagine. He won the last of his Ballons d’Or in 2017 and, even by that stage, aged 32, he had become a far more economical player than the unstoppable, irrepressible force of his mid-to-late 20s.

Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal


Ronaldo beats Jan Oblak from the spot in the shootout (Harriet Lander – UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images)

Some will suggest this is a tournament too far for him, but similar was said at the World Cup in Qatar 18 months ago, where he made little impact and ended up losing his place to Goncalo Ramos. It now feels like two tournaments too far — or two tournaments in which Ronaldo might be better utilised as an option, perhaps coming off the bench at times, trading places with Ramos or Diogo Jota, rather than as the fixed point around which all else must revolve.

It was almost surprising to hear Ronaldo describe this, in the post-match mixed zone, as his last European Championship. “But I’m not emotional about that,” he said. “I’m moved by all that football means — by the enthusiasm I have for the game, the enthusiasm for seeing my supporters, my family, the affection people have for me.

“It’s not about leaving the world of football. What else is there for me to do or win? It’s not going to come down to one point more or one point less. Making people happy is what motivates me the most.”

What else is there for him to do or win? That didn’t sound like Ronaldo, particularly given the scenes we had witnessed earlier in the evening. He is right, of course — his legacy and place among the game’s immortals was secured long ago — but his reaction to that missed penalty was not that of someone who feels immune to the pressures of proving himself over and over and over again.

“He’s an example for us,” Martinez said afterwards. “Those emotions (after missing the penalty) were incredible. He doesn’t need to care that much after the career he has had and everything he has achieved. After missing the penalty, he was the first penalty-taker (in the shootout). I was certain he had to be first and show us the way to victory. The way he reacted is an example and we’re very proud.”

Lovely words, but Martinez has a big decision to make before Portugal’s quarter-final against France in Hamburg on Friday.

There have been many times over the years when Ronaldo has been the player to drag a team back from the brink, but on Monday night he looked beaten not just by Oblak’s penalty save but by the one opponent that catches up with every athlete in the end: time.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

The cult of Cristiano Ronaldo

(Top photo: Alex Grimm/Getty Images)



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