Can Ronaldo defy France, and history, to earn Euro redemption?
In life, you don’t always get second chances; unless you are Cristiano Ronaldo
In life, you don’t always get second chances. Unless you are Cristiano Ronaldo. In which case you get second, third, fourth or as many chances as you please.
As a 19-year-old, Ronaldo was part of the Portugal team that succumbed, to universal astonishment, 1-0 to Greece in the Euro 2004 final. Tonight, another golden opportunity awaits the Portugal captain. Victory in the 2016 final over the hosts at the Stade de France will arguably be the crowning achievement of a remarkable career.
Not even his fiercest critics, and there are many, can deny that Ronaldo, through obsessive dedication and hard work, allied to his obvious skills, has earned this second chance.
A second chance
“Opportunities multiply as they are seized,” the Chinese military general and strategist Sun Tzu wrote in the Art of War. And no one seizes opportunities quite like Ronaldo.
His tears following that shock 1-0 loss in Lisbon 12 years ago will not have been forgotten. Since then he has time and again shown an uncanny knack for redemption on the big stage.
At the 2008 Champions League final, Ronaldo’s missed spot kick left Manchester United on the brink of defeat. Yet again there were tears from the boy who always gets his way. Minutes later, John Terry slipped, and the rest is history.
Two years ago, Real Madrid’s hopes of a 10th Champions League win looked over as city rival Atletico led 1-0 going into injury time in Lisbon. Sergio Ramos’s last gasp header took the match into extra time. Given a lifeline against spent opponents, the modern day Galacticos ran out 4-1 winners, Ronaldo getting his moment of glory with a penalty.
And in June, having performed poorly in a repeat of that final, Ronaldo, inevitably, settled the match with the winning penalty in another shootout.
In France, his form has been hit and miss over the last month, but having reached the final, Ronaldo will relish the prospect of defying a nation desperate for a morale-raising triumph. The more it seems the world is against him, the happier he is.
History favours France
History is on France’s side. They have won the competition twice, as hosts in 1984 and again at Euro 2000, held in Holland and Belgium. They have also been victorious in the last two international competitions held at home, that Michel Platini inspired Euro win 1984, and the 1998 World Cup.
On current form too, France appear to be superior to Portugal in most areas of the field.
In their six matches so far, Didier Deschamps’s team have easily outperformed their opponents. Antoine Griezmann is the competition’s leading goal-scorer with six, and Dimitri Payet has been sensational. Hugo Lloris has led from the back; and Paul Pogba, Blaise Matuidi and Olivier Giroud have all delivered when needed.
Portugal meanwhile have relied on the clever, some would say spoiling, tactics of coach Fernando Santos. Ronaldo’s form has been patchy at best, perhaps due to, paradoxically, a combination of his usual desire to be at the centre of the action and a formation that relies on teamwork more than any individual member.
There has certainly been a sense of mission creep to Portugal’s campaign, with the supporting cast slowly coming into his their own as the tournament progressed.
Renato Sanchez, Bayern Munich’s new signing, scored a brilliant goal against Poland in the quarter final and excelled against Wales. Ricardo Quaresma, the man who Ronaldo idolized as teenager and increasingly perceived as a wasted talent, has belatedly in his career seized his very own second chance, scoring the extra time winner against Croatia and the decisive penalty against Poland.
Even the enigmatic, unpopular Pepe has raised his level of performance before his injury in the quarter final.
Above all, Portugal will rely on the one thing France cannot call on: the Ronaldo factor.
Payet mercurial gifts, Griezmann’s goals and Pogba’s sheer physical brilliance are attributes the three time Ballon d’Or winner still possesses in spades, when the mood takes him.
The lucky one
Ronaldo remains a masterful manipulator of fate. Before their semi-final clash, the Welsh and Portuguese camps insisted that the match was not about only Ronaldo and real Madrid teammate Gareth Bale. They were right. In the end, it was about Ronaldo only.
Ronaldo polarizes opinion like no other player on the planet. Yet when he produces moments of such jaw-dropping brilliance like his astounding headed goal against Wales, even his biggest detractors can only sit back and applaud.
Skill, strength and, above all, timing, the moment encapsulated what it is to be Ronaldo at the point in his career.
Ronaldo will see tonight’s final as a personal calling, so expect plenty of shots, free-kicks, dribbles and one or two sulks.
Beat France and the 2016 Ballon d’Or, an award Ronaldo cherishes, will be his. And, rightly or wrongly, it would see many ready to proclaim him the greatest European player of all time. In a field that includes George Best, Johann Cruyff, Franz Beckenbauer and Zinedine Zidane, that is some legacy.
Napoleon Bonaparte, a man who knew a thing or two about winning battles, famously said he’d rather have a “lucky general than a good one”.
Tonight, those waving the tricolor at the Stade de France, will expect nothing less than victory from those wearing it on the pitch. The lucky one, however, will be leading the charge from the other side.