Ronaldo plenty to prove at Euro 2012
Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo is one of the world’s two best-known soccer players, but as Euro 2012 approaches, he is this tournament’s unquestioned number one star.
He also enters with a lot to prove – and an image in need of refurbishment on the world stage.
Ronaldo – despite a magical season at Real Madrid – labors in the shadow of his arch-rival in La Liga, Lionel Messi. This tournament is a chance for him to finally break free of his free-scoring nemesis. Ronaldo must also shake off his reputation as a man who disappears in big games.
Finally, Portugal have never won this tournament and they are counting on Ronaldo to deliver the goods this year. That may be a step too far considering the makeup of this team.
It is a heavy, heady load – but one that this week Ronaldo seemed ready to embrace.
The Portugal captain was a cheerful, playful presence here amongst his countrymen this week, and the fact is the “real Ronaldo” leads by example in terms of mood and commitment.
This is in sharp contrast to his image: a spoiled, self-centered diver and con man. He has been frequently criticized for being too much of an individual whilst representing Real Madrid, and while this seems peculiar considering he plays for a club that specializes in putting superstars on gold-plated pedestals, it is one that has stuck to him.
Even his heartbreak at exiting the 2010 World Cup in the last 16, to eventual champion Spain, was held up as an example of his self-interest. He trudged disconsolately off the pitch in Cape Town and later described himself as a “broken man” to journalists.
But the media pack zoomed in instead on perceived criticism of his then-coach Carlos Queiroz, and even some former players claimed his lack of desire to speak was a dereliction of his duty as captain. In Portugal, talk turned to the prospect of the talismanic defender Bruno Alves taking over Ronaldo’s mantle as captain.
The reality is that this was no diva performance. Ronaldo was hurting, and hurting badly. He is a proud Portuguese, and to go down against the country’s bigger Iberian neighbor on the biggest stage, with little fight, stung.
“For me it’s an honor to represent Portugal,” Ronaldo said this week. “I’ll give my very best, as I always do. We’re not favorite, but the favorites can’t always win, so I believe Portugal can do well.”
Belief is essential for Ronaldo and his colleagues in this tournament, having been drawn in a tough initial group phase with Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark. Unlike Portugal, these three are all previous winners of the tournament. But Ronaldo sees no deep gulf between his nation and these giants, despite the fact that Portugal is far smaller in every way – the nation has just 11 million inhabitants.
Ronaldo’s first major international tournament was Euro 2004, hosted by Portugal. Surrounded by Portuguese soccer’s golden generation, featuring titans of the country’s game such as Luís Figo, Manuel Rui Costa and Fernando Couto, the 19-year-old Ronaldo was quickly indoctrinated into a culture of high achievement, and high expectation. Perhaps that tournament’s most enduring image was of Ronaldo leaving the field after Portugal lost to Greece in the final, his eyes red-raw from sobbing his disappointment.
High standards, and the deep-seated desire to go one better, still burn inside Ronaldo as they did when he was a teenager. “We have a great team and a great coach,” he said, “so we have to have the ambition of winning something big.”
Current coach, Paulo Bento, has been a key player in the upswing in Ronaldo’s international form. Their paths crossed early in Ronaldo’s journey, when he was a young academy graduate making his way at Sporting Clube de Portugal, and Bento was a senior player at the Lisbon club. Bento has known for years not just about Ronaldo’s extraordinary talent, but about the fierce ambition and the obsessive need to constantly improve that has pushed him to the very summit of the world game.
“He’s a very easy player to work with,” Bento said of Ronaldo this week, “thanks to his high level of professionalism.”
That much has been clear in the initial training sessions in Opalenica – a small town 40 minutes from the western city of Poznan – this week. Greeted enthusiastically by cheering locals at Portugal’s training center, Ronaldo zipped around the field with his customary appetite, and almost over-stretched himself in the very first session. Sliding in to make a challenge on his former teammate at Sporting, Ricardo Quaresma, Ronaldo walked away limping and clutching his left thigh, before later running it off.
Under Bento, Ronaldo seems a much more natural captain than when he originally took the role, back in 2008. It had been an idea first floated by Queiroz’s predecessor Luiz Felipe Scolari during Euro 2008. Scolari, a Brazilian who had guided Portugal to the 2004 final in a flurry of flag-waving fervor, spotted something in Ronaldo that many couldn’t see. While many saw the then-Manchester United winger’s extravagance as self-indulgence, Scolari saw at close quarters the extraordinary dedication and someone who was a true patriot. Not, perhaps, an obvious choice as a club captain, but a good pick as an international one.
Many assumed Queiroz would be the man to consistently conjure the best from Ronaldo for Portugal, but it didn’t work out for two reasons. It had been assumed that the men had a close relationship from their shared days at Manchester United. Not true: it was Sir Alex Ferguson, who Ronaldo last week described as “my second father,” and with whom the player shared a genuine bond.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, Queiroz’s ultra-defensive tactics left Ronaldo isolated and starved of service at the spearhead of the Portugal team – a prizefighter fed on peanuts. By the end of Queiroz’s tenure, Ronaldo had scored just twice for Portugal in two years.
Since then, Ronaldo has been released from the straitjacket for his country and has produced something far closer to his extraordinary Real Madrid form. After Bento was parachuted in to salvage an ailing qualification campaign for Euro 2012, Ronaldo took the bull by the horns, hitting seven in the new coach’s first eight competitive matches at the helm – and then another two in the spectacular play-off win over Bosnia-Herzegovina which sealed safe passage to the tournament in Poland and Ukraine.
Personality-wise, Bento is ostensibly the opposite of Ronaldo; stoic, unflashy and undemonstrative. Yet they understand and complement each other perfectly. On the field, the coach has sought to use Ronaldo where he is most effective, on the left side of a three-man attack, rather than filling a perceived need in the center. The team is set up to get the best out of its best player.
“We know that we’re in the most difficult group in the European Championship, but we can’t dwell on that,” said Ronaldo. “We’ve known it’s the case for months. I think we’ll do good work here and go through to the next phase.”
Then, the man who told the Lisbon media last week that one of the aspects of international duty that gave him the most pleasure was “always speaking Portuguese,” wryly turned to the press corps and left the room with an American jab: “See you later, alligator.”
A bullish, fired-up Ronaldo is good for Portugal – and Euro 2012 – in any language.