It’s the nightmare for any football nation; your Golden Generation reveals itself, and then doesn’t cash in its potential and win a major trophy. Hungary set the tone for this back in the 1950s, when their Magical Magyars lost the World Cup Final to West Germany in Berne. The Dutch and the Danish have seen this film too; although both would later produce teams that would win the European Championship, their respective 1974-78 and 1984-86 iterations were more gifted, iconic and revered, but fell short of picking up the trophies to match their talent.
At the 2004 European Championship, that scenario was visited upon Portugal while they were hosting the tournament. They reached the final, and everything seemed in their favour. The 24-carat gold nuggets from their 1991 World Youth Cup winning team, Luís Figo and Rui Costa, were in their primes; FC Porto had just won the Champions League, and bolstered the team with Ricardo Carvalho, Costinha, Maniche and Deco; and, on the right of their attack, was one of the most devastating wide players in Europe.
Cristiano Ronaldo was just 19 years old at Euro 2004, but in the space of just six games his ability had promoted him from the status of someone who was in the squad to someone who was indispensable. He had scored two majestic headers along the way, against Greece in the opening match and the Netherlands in the semi-final. The Greeks faced Portugal in the final in Lisbon. Having won their first encounter, they stunned the home crowd again with a smash and grab 1-0 victory in the final. Most of Portugal’s best chances fell to Ronaldo. He was not yet a finisher, and accordingly he did not finish. As Greece celebrated their victory, Ronaldo was left caked in his own tears.
'This kid nobody knew tore us apart for the whole game'
It had been the first real blip in a meteoric rise to fame. One year earlier, in a friendly between Sporting Lisbon and Manchester United to open the new José Alvalade Stadium, Ronaldo had served notice of his potential. “It was an incredible performance to watch that night,” said United defender Mikaël Silvestre. “This kid nobody knew tore us apart for the whole game. No one could get near him.” As they left the game, United’s players implored their manager to sign Ronaldo. Sir Alex Ferguson doesn’t take stupid breaths; the deal had been worked out before his team left the stadium that night.
Ronaldo had sufficient hubris to take on the number 7 shirt recently made vacant by David Beckham’s transfer to Real Madrid. United had intended to loan him out for his first season. Instead he was winning the FA Cup in May 2004 after opening the scoring in the final. Ronaldo scored again as United won the League Cup two years later; and, when he came back from helping Portugal to reach the semi-finals of the 2006 World Cup in Germany, he transformed himself into a goalscoring phenomenon that has never since waned from the highest standards.
“Coming back from the 2006 World Cup was the moment I remember him completely changing,” said Gary Neville. A summer in the gym had transformed Ronaldo’s physique. Gone was the skinny kid that had indulged in stepovers as he tied a full-back in reef knots; in his place was a direct and purposeful forward that could maraud through the middle from wide positions. There were also changes in his mind as well as his body. Ronaldo’s decision-making about when to pass, shoot or dribble became clinically precise. The difference was staggering; his transformation from being a bundle of potential to delivering on it seemed as instantaneous as flipping a light switch.
Delivering Manchester United a hat-trick of league titles
Ronaldo was United’s top scorer in the Premier League in the following three seasons. In that spell they rattled off only their second ever hat-trick of league titles, wrestling back control of English football from a Chelsea team that had looked set to dominate under José Mourinho. In 2008 United asserted their superiority by beating Chelsea on penalties in the Champions League Final in Moscow. Ronaldo had missed his effort in the shootout but had scored United’s goal during the match and the most goals of any player in the competition. A year later he took them back to the final via stunning goals against FC Porto and Arsenal in the knockout rounds. Only the ominous force of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona team prevented United from retaining the trophy.
They were a force Ronaldo would have to get used to. That summer he transferred to Real Madrid for a world record £80 million and set about trying to beat Barcelona on a regular basis. Domestically it was a forlorn struggle. In Ronaldo’s first seven seasons Real Madrid won only one title - in 2011-12 - while five went to the Camp Nou. Barcelona’s superiority was underlined in Ronaldo’s second season, when they served their bitter rivals a legendary 5-0 drubbing in one El Clasico in November 2010.
Although Ronaldo had teammates like Xabi Alonso and Sergio Ramos, and Xavi and Andrés Iniesta were the hub of the Barcelona midfield, the rivalry between the two clubs soon became manifested in two players. By the 2010s the consumption of football was becoming heavily influenced by two forces that were permeating the game: the cult of the individual player and an obsession with data. Into this perfect storm stepped Ronaldo and Barcelona’s Lionel Messi.
Both spent the decade racking up goal-per-game ratios reminiscent of Gerd Müller in his pomp. Accordingly, they both greedily accumulated the biggest individual and club prizes going. Throughout the decade the two traded Ballon d’Ors and Champions League titles. At the point of the summer of 2016, there was a general consensus that Messi had the edge. Not only was he winning the numbers game, he was also viewed as a more rounded player and wholesome character. Ronaldo by contrast was viewed by many as preening showman. With his free kick theatre, trademark goal pose and ripping his top off to show his muscle mass at opportune moments, he was accused of turning his career into a vanity project.
Gerd Muller races away to celebrate after he scored his side+s third goal past Italian goalkeeper Enrico Albertosi and Gianni Rivera
Image credit: Getty Images
Obsessed with being as good as he could possibly be
It was a theory that overlooked a self-belief driving one of the most ferocious and dedicated work ethics ever seen in the game. Ronaldo was obsessed with being as good as he could possibly be. Yet not being held in quite the same regard as Messi did seem to really get to him at points, and opposing fans were not shy in provoking him. At Euro 2012, Ronaldo had a poor game against Denmark and their fans started chanting ‘Messi’ to get under his skin. It worked. “You know where he was at this time [last year]? Do you know?” Ronaldo asked reporters in the post-match press conference. “He was being eliminated in the Copa America, in his own country. I think that's worse, no?”
Ronaldo had hit on a source of frustration for both players. For all of their achievements for their clubs, neither had won a major prize for their national side. The World Cup had always been a frustration – and still neither player has ever scored outside of the group stages – and both had failed to win their continental championship. At Euro 2008 Portugal had gone out in the quarterfinals and, although Ronaldo scored three times at the tournament, they were eliminated in the semi-finals on penalties by Spain at Euro 2012. Going in to the 2016 European Championship in France, the Portuguese team were 16-1 to win the trophy; Ronaldo would be integral to a triumph that has catalysed a spectacular winter to his career.
There was little sign of what was to come in their opening match against Iceland in Saint-Étienne. The game finished 1-1, with Iceland drawing level after Nani had put the Portuguese in front. It was their first point in their first-ever major championship, and the pleasure they took in that feat narked Ronaldo. “I thought they’d won the Euros the way they celebrated at the end,” he said. “It was unbelievable. When they don’t try to play and just defend, defend, defend, this in my opinion shows a small mentality and they are not going to do anything in the competition.” A euro for Roy Hodgson’s thoughts.
Four days later in Paris, Ronaldo had an agonising night against Austria. He spurned two good chances from close range, hit the post with a penalty and then had a goal disallowed with six minutes remaining. The game finished goalless. With only two points on the board, Portugal were in a precarious spot. Although the Euros had now expanded to hold 24 teams, and four of the six third-placed teams in the groups could make the knockout round of 16, there was huge pressure on Portugal’s final group game against Hungary in Lyon. It showed. On a pre-match stroll around the city, Ronaldo was approached by a reporter. He grabbed hold of their microphone and threw it into a nearby lake.
During the match he saved Portugal while they were flailing in the deep end. Three times Hungary took the lead, and three times Portugal pegged them back. Ronaldo laid on Portugal’s first equaliser, with a guided through pass for Nani to crash a shot home. In the second half he made it 2-2 with an insouciant back heel into the net from a João Mário cross, becoming the first ever player to score in four different editions of the European Championship. When he crashed in a header to equalise for the third and final time, it earned the point that – just – put Portugal into the knockout stages after finishing in third place in Group F.
Consequently, they landed a tough draw in the second round. Croatia had won their group by beating defending champions Spain in their final game, their first defeat at the tournament for 12 years. It was a tight game in Lens, and Portugal won it with a goal in extra-time that left virtually no time to respond. Nani shanked a shot across the Croat area, and it fell to Ronaldo, whose point-blank shot was saved by Danijel Subašić. Waiting to nod in the rebound from a yard out was Ricardo Quaresma, the 32-year old winger now playing at Besiktas. It was the only shot on target in the whole game.
Even though they weren’t playing that well, Portugal were picking up momentum. Their quarter-final with Poland in Marseille went to penalties after a 1-1 draw in which the Poles initially went ahead in the second minute. Compartmentalizing his miss against Austria, Ronaldo went first against Poland, a definite reaction to Euro 2012 where he had positioned himself for a fifth kick that never came against Spain in the semi-final shootout. Ronaldo scored confidently and prior to the shootout had rounded up others to do the same.
'You hit them well. If we lose then f**k it. Be strong'
“Hey! Hey! Come kick, come kick,” he yelled at midfielder Joao Moutinho, who had been making a beeline for the shadows. “You hit them well. If we lose then f**k it. Be strong. Come on! Be strong! You hit them well, come on. It’s in God’s hands now.” Moutinho was strong; so were Renato Sanches and Nani, and all three scored. When Jakub Błaszczykowski missed Poland’s fourth kick, Portugal had the chance to win it. For the second time in five days Quaresma nailed the decisive moment, dispatching his kick to put Portugal through.
The semi-final in Lyon brought into competition Real Madrid’s two modern day Galacticos. Facing Ronaldo and Portugal were Wales, who had stunned Belgium with an epic 3-1 victory in Lille in the quarter-finals. Their gamebreaker was Gareth Bale, who had signed for Madrid for £85.3 million in 2013. In tandem, the two had won the Champions League in 2014 and 2016. There was intense media speculation that their relationship was frosty, which both have denied; Ronaldo retained his status as the focal point of the Real Madrid set-up, and would get the better of his colleague in Lyon.
A thumping header from a corner by Ronaldo put Portugal ahead in the 50th minute. It was his ninth goal in all European Championships and pulled him level with Michel Platini as the all-time leading goal scorer at the tournament. Three minutes after that, Ronaldo inadvertently assisted the goal that settled the semi-final. He dragged a shot through the penalty area that was going wide until Nani threw out a leg to divert it past Wayne Hennessey. Wales were missing their suspended midfielder Aaron Ramsey, and Bale was too peripheral on the game to drag them back into it. Ronaldo, the senior partner, was heading to the final.
Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates scoring his goal during the UEFA EURO 2016 Group F match between Hungary and Portugal at Stade des Lumieres on June 22, 2016 in Lyon, France.
Image credit: Getty Images
They would face the hosts at the Stade de France in Paris. Eight months earlier an explosion outside that stadium during a friendly between France and Germany was the beginning of a night of horrific terror attacks on the French capital. It was the deadliest attack on France since the Second World War, and the country was still healing when Didier Deschamps’ team embarked on an uplifting run through the tournament. They had been the best team in the competition, with Paul Pogba, Dimitri Payet, Oliver Giroud and Antoine Griezmann all prominent. The latter had scored six goals at the tournament, including the two that beat world champions Germany in the semi-final.
It had been harder work for the Portugal squad. Nani had been excellent, with three goals, but was a converted winger playing up front. Quaresma was frequently required for stints off the bench and they had been forced to use ageing centre-backs Bruno Alves and Carvalho through the tournament. They had some talented young players in Sanches, João Mário and full-back Raphaël Guerreiro, but there was no doubt what force of nature had been fundamental in getting Portugal this far. Given his influence, which went far beyond his three goals and three assists, the final was set up to be all about Ronaldo. It would prove to be, but not in a manner anyone expected.
After just 8 minutes a strong, ball-winning challenge from Payet sent Ronaldo to the floor in agony. He tried to play on but had injured his knee so badly that his final was over. After 25 minutes he was substituted, in tears, and replaced by Quaresma. With Portugal’s best player gone France now looked certain to win. Instead, they were beaten by one of the most iconic goals in the history of the European Championship.
Portugal’s striker Eder had only appeared as a substitute during the tournament, after a torrid club season where he had failed to score in 15 games for Swansea City and was loaned out to Lille. With only eleven minutes left in Paris, he shrugged off a challenge from Laurent Koscielny and raked a low 25-yard drive past Hugo Lloris and into the bottom corner. It was a stunning goal and France could not respond; Portugal were the European champions.
No matter how gifted any one player might be, they can’t do it all on their own
For the remainder of extra-time Ronaldo hobbled frantically around the technical area, barking instructions and encouragement at his teammates. Portugal’s actual manager, Fernando Santos, stood to Ronaldo's side, his influence debilitated. Ronaldo went up to lift Portugal’s first international trophy; as he was known to keep track of Messi’s summer plans, he would probably have been aware that Argentina had lost another Copa America final a week earlier in the United States. Yet as influential as Ronaldo had undoubtedly been the triumph was Portugal’s, and the final was evidence of an immutable football truth; no matter how gifted any one player might be, they can’t do it all on their own.
Manager Fernando Santos and Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal celebrate winning at the final whistle during the UEFA EURO 2016 Final match between Portugal and France at Stade de France on July 10, 2016 in Paris, France.
Image credit: Getty Images
That doesn’t make his individual CV any less imposing. Real Madrid won another two Champions League titles in the years after Euro 2016, part of a run of 4 in 5 seasons that represent the only dynasty in the last twenty-five years of the competition. Ronaldo has a total of five winners’ medals in that competition, and five Ballon d’Ors. He is Real Madrid’s all-time leading scorer and also holds the Champions League goalscoring record. For Portugal he currently sits on 102 international goals, and in 2019 he captained them to another international gong when they won the inaugural European Nations League title.
Basic physiology doesn’t seem to be slowing him down either. Aged 33, Juventus paid £99.2 million to take him to Serie A where he has kept on scoring freely. Ronaldo’s thirties haven’t dulled his abilities, nor his self-confidence. “I've never seen anyone better than me,” he told France Football in 2017, “I have always thought that. No footballer can do the things I can.” Who is the greatest player to have ever played the game is a subjective and largely pointless debate; but people will always have it, and it can’t be had without discussing Ronaldo.
Euro Icons: Every episode
- Euro Icons - 2012: Andres Iniesta - the player who retired them all
- Euro Icons, 2008: Xavi and the Barca-fication of Spain
- Euro Icons, 2004: When Wayne Rooney had the world at his feet
- Euro Icons, 2000: The most glorious summer of Zinedine Zidane's career
- Euro Icons, 1996: Alan Shearer and the summer when football came home
- Euro Icons, 1992: Peter Schmeichel, the Great Dane
- Euro Icons, 1988: Marco van Basten and a truly iconic triumph
- Euro Icons, 1984: Michel Platini's one-man demolition job
- Euro Icons, 1980: Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and the new Germany
- Euro Icons, 1976: Antonin Panenka, a true original
- Euro Icons, 1972: Gunter Netzer and the greatest Germany team of all time