Euro 2016 final - No limits to Cristiano Ronaldo's greatness as he has his Maradona moment
As he finally lifted the international trophy he so craved in Paris, writes Tom Adams, Cristiano Ronaldo's greatness was enhanced in two ways.
Cristiano Ronaldo's first international trophy as a player was also, by the end, his first as a manager.
Exiled to the sidelines by a cruel twist of fate, Ronaldo reinvented himself as an assistant to Fernando Santos, treading the touchline, issuing tactical instructions and exhorting every last bit of sweat from his team-mates as Portugal, improbably, impossibly, beat France in the final of Euro 2016 in Paris.
After having his knee heavily strapped following a challenge from Dimitri Payet early in the first half, which provoked desperately sad scenes as he twice crumpled to the ground in tears, he took on a new role. One which showed he is invested in team glory as well the personal kind which constantly surrounds him.
The comparisons with 2004, when his Portugal lost to Greece and Ronaldo sobbed his heart out, were too easy to draw as he was being taken off on a stretcher. But when Eder struck his unlikely winner, and the final whistle blew, Ronaldo was crying tears of uncontained joy from the sidelines.
Cristiano Ronaldo, PepeImago
Ronaldo has really grown into his role as Portugal's leader in these finals and in those tense final minutes, with fear and hope flashing alternately across his face, he showed true leadership. A final which began with a crunching tackle which took him out of the game, seemingly denying him the moment he craved above all others, his “dream”, ended with his reputation being enhanced in new and unexpected ways.
"Our skipper, he had an immense effort," said coach Fernando Santos. "We had amazing team spirit, he had amazing team spirit. Twice he tried as much as he could to get back on the pitch, but he couldn't do it. But being there in the locker room, on the bench it was very important to us, the way he reached the lads, incentivised them, he believed, like I believed, that tonight was our night."
Fans in the Paris FanZone watch Cristiano Ronaldo get carried offAFP
It didn’t start out quite like that. Ronaldo lives his life in widescreen and HD so it was fitting that the cinematically tragic scene of his early injury was transmitted to the fan zone on the biggest screens in Paris, just next to the Eiffel Tower. It was a personal tragedy made hyper-real, resembling not so much a football final as a state event in North Korea. Portugal’s Dear Leader was departing; how could it ever be the same without him?
Certainlty the match was diluted after his absence. France had lost the fluidity which had started to creep into their play in recent matches and, a resurgent Moussa Sissoko aside, offered very little with Paul Pogba quiet and Antoine Griezmann unable to show off his predatory instincts, even if one excellent glancing header had to be tipped over by Rui Patricio. It was not until extra-time that the game finally came alive - and Ronaldo did too.
Antoine Griezmann and Moussa SissokoAFP
It was his head bobbing up and down every minute from the bench as Portugal sensed a winner. After Eder had slammed home a low shot from 25 yards on 109 minutes which Hugo Lloris had been unable to stop, it was Ronaldo, hobbling badly at times, who was kicking every ball and jumping for every header.
When Raphel Guerreiro struggled to shake off an injury, it was Ronaldo who charged down the touchline after him and told him to get back on the field to make up the numbers. He was more animated than any assistant manager. This was what it meant to him.
And these were no empty gestures, according to his team-mates. Already in the early hours of Sunday, this was being recorded as Ronaldo’s doing.
"[Ronaldo] told me I would score the winning goal for the team," said Eder. "He gave me this strength, this energy and it was vital.”
Right-back Cedric Soares revealed a key address from the captain. "At half-time, Cristiano had fantastic words for us,” he said. ”He gave us a lot of confidence and said 'listen people, I'm sure we will win, so stay together and fight for it.'… he was fantastic. His attitude was unbelievable. Always he helped a lot our team-mates, he always had a lot of motivational words and all the team of course reacted to them, so it was very good."
The most perfect moment of Ronaldo’s transformation was when he pointed to his hand, in the place a watch should be, and screamed at the referee to blow his whistle. It was an unmistakable gesture that Mark Clattenburg must have been on the receiving end of a few times before, only usually delivered in a Glasgow accent: Fergie time, and then it was time for Fergie.
As if to consecrate this night in which Ronaldo became more than just a player, there was a hug from the man who started everything at Manchester United; the man who took a huge talent from Sporting Lisbon and turned him into a global superstar. Sir Alex Ferguson put Ronaldo on the road to greatness, and now he stands apart from any other player in the modern game.
Ronaldo has his first international trophy; Lionel Messi, defeated in the final of the Copa America, does not. And vitally, for those who care deeply about legacy and greatness, Ronaldo also has his Maradona moment.
One of the arguments for the Argentine great is that with his country at the 1986 World Cup and Napoli in Serie A in 1986-87 and 1989-90 he inspired an average team to achieve something great; made them more than themselves.
Diego Maradona, Argentina, 1986 World CupEurosport
Messi, who grew up in the cloistered and privileged world of Barcelona, has no similar claims. But Ronaldo does.
Portugal's is a triumph of coaching and togetherness but the truth is they are deeply average. They came third in their group, won only one match over 90 minutes in the whole tournament, and their winner in Paris was scored by Eder, who failed to net a single goal in 15 games for Swansea this season. They needed Ronaldo to get them into the knockouts with two goals against Hungary and he decided the semi-final against Wales with a goal and an assist in the space of three minutes.
Frankly, to win the Euros with this team is a quite stunning achievement. And the real irony is that ultimately, in the final, Portugal had to do it without Ronaldo. Or without his playing talents at least. His presence on the touchline - urging his team-mates onwards, exhorting them to win it in his name - was perhaps at least as powerful.
"I have been looking for this for a long time, since 2004,” he said. “I asked God for another chance at this because we deserved it. Today I was unfortunate, I was injured but I always believed that these players, together with the strategy, would be strong enough to beat France. This is one of the happiest moments in my career. I always said I'd like to win something with Portugal."
Lifting silverware last night in Paris was the culmination of a long dream for Ronaldo; a trophy with his country completes his playing career, though other prizes will surely follow - probably including this year’s Ballon d’Or, given that he has won the Champions League and the European Championship in the space of six weeks.
But after a night when he was cast to the periphery and still became central to the story, he showed his greatness knows no bounds.