The defending European champions remain centered around him, but a time will come soon when he’s not the focus—and it’ll be just fine.
It was a strange, humid night at the Stade de France, the site of the Euro 2016 final. First there were the moths, thousands upon thousands of them, apparently attracted by the sodium lamps that had been used on the pitch overnight. They had settled in the grass and then were disturbed when the players came out to warm up, rising in great swarms into the evening sky, leaving a sooty residue across the seats, landing on players and officials, and drawing, in turn, clouds of birds in expectation of a feast.
After a warm-up that felt like a magical realist version of the plagues of Egypt, the game itself was drab. Portugal and France were sides packed with talent, but both seemed wary of using it, preferring to grind opponents down, looking to wait and use that talent to take advantage of the few chances that came their way rather than attempt something more fluent and, perhaps, transcendent. France, perhaps not entirely volitionally, dominated the ball, looked the more threatening of the two.
Cristiano Ronaldo became almost a figurehead. A dozen years earlier, he had played in Portugal’s other only major final up to that point and had left the Lisbon pitch in tears after a 1–0 defeat to Greece at Euro 2004. He had vowed then he would return and take Portugal to its first major title. There had been a defeat in the semifinal of the World Cup in 2006 and of the Euros in ’12. By France ’16, Ronaldo was 31 and his peak seemingly coming to an end. The general sense was this was his best chance. And then, he went down after a challenge from Dimitri Payet. He got up and tried to carry on. Twice more he went down before finally accepting he could not continue. After 25 minutes, his final was over.
Portugal sat even deeper. In the technical area, Ronaldo cajoled and pointed while the actual manager, Fernando Santos, remained seated. “He was calling out all the players, every name,” said Nani in a recent BBC documentary. “I think almost everyone felt his presence on the touchline.”
France’s André-Pierre Gignac hit the post in the final minute, but it was still 0–0 after 90 minutes. France began to lose belief. Éder, a 79th-minute substitute, drew a fine save from Hugo Lloris. Raphaël Guerreiro hit the bar with a free kick. And then, with 11 minutes remaining in extra time and penalty kicks beckoning, Ricardo Quaresma, Ronaldo’s replacement, advanced and slipped a pass to Éder, who, from 25 yards, drove it hard and low into the bottom corner.
Portugal did to France what had been done to it by Greece in 2004: It thwarted the hosts in the final, seized one of its few chances and, with a 1–0 win, claimed its first international trophy. Ronaldo, for all of his coaching antics on the touchline, wasn’t needed on the pitch for his country to achieve its goal. And it remains the case that A Seleção are positioned for success when the time comes for Ronaldo to hang up his prolific boots.
Portugal now is a better side than it was five years ago. Manager Fernando Santos, dour and pragmatic as ever, remains in charge and has added a UEFA Nations League title to his roll of honor. His squad now includes the likes of Bruno Fernandes, João Felíx, Bernardo Silva, Diogo Jota and André Silva, all dynamic attacking talents. And Ronaldo is still there, 36 now, his movement diminished to the point that he has become almost an old-fashioned target man—albeit one who combines his athletic heading with extraordinary technical ability. He is not your average 36-year-old athlete, as evidenced by his contempt for Coca-Cola bottles at his Monday press conference and a rallying cry to drink water instead, but Father Time comes for everyone eventually.
With his expected appearance vs. Hungary on Tuesday, Ronaldo will become the first men’s player to feature in five European Championships. One goal at the Euros would take him to 10 in his career in the competition, surpassing the record he currently shares with French great Michel Platini. Six more goals for Portugal would pull him ahead of Iranian great Ali Daei as the most prolific scorer in men’s international football history (Daei’s all-time scoring mark stands at 109; Ronaldo scored his 104th goal for Portugal in a pre-Euros tune-up vs. Israel). But he must also want to win an international tournament while on the pitch, and for him the perfect narrative would be for the winner in the final to break Daei’s record—even though he has insisted that he was overjoyed at the victory Portugal achieved over France without him (and there is nothing to suggest his sentiment was insincere).
“The start of the European football championship 2016 was going well for me, but then I was sad because I got injured,” he said. “By the end of the match I was crying with happiness. I experienced three types of feelings and emotions in that game, but at the end of the day it was unbelievable what I felt. It is probably the most important trophy that I’ve won in my life.”
The aspect of his words that rings untrue is that suggestion that the start of the tournament was going well. Portugal began with a 1–1 draw against Iceland, to which Ronaldo responded with some ill-advised remarks about how the Icelandic players had celebrated a point in their first game in a major tournament, making him look churlish and aloof. There was little to improve his mood in the other two group games, as Portugal drew 0–0 with Austria and then fell behind three times against Hungary before drawing 3–3, qualifying for the last 16 as only one of the four best third-placed teams (it was an expanded Euros and the first featuring third-place teams going through), having not won a single match.
Portugal’s progress through the knockout rounds was then based on stopping the opposition from scoring. The last-16 tie against Croatia was a grim slog, eventually settled by Quaresma in the 117th minute. The quarterfinal brought a drab 1-1 draw with Poland that was eventually settled on penalties. The semifinal was more straightforward, with goals from Ronaldo and Nani downing a Wales side that had reached its maximum level. In those final four games, three of which went to extra time, Portugal scored just five goals, but conceded only once.
One of the great fallacies of international football is that tournaments are won by teams who trust their forwards and who commit to proactive, possession-based football. Occasionally a truly great side will emerge—although it’s worth remembering that even Spain had its successes between 2008 and ’12 with a more cautious approach than the Barcelona model from which it was derived and that many found its attritional possession unappealingly bloodless. But for the most part, it’s solidity plus a gifted forward or two that wins international tournaments.
For a decade after winning the Under-20 World Cups in 1989 and ’91, Portugal was blighted by a sense of unfulfilled expectation. It had a fleet of sumptuous attacking midfielders but somehow always came up short. On home soil in 2004, a new generation was thwarted at the last step by a dogged Greece. The lesson was learned, and there is something fitting in the fact that Santos’s final job before taking over the Portugal national team was with Greece.
The system five years ago suited Ronaldo perfectly. This was a team playing for him. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that eight outfielders sat behind the ball, then Nani linked to him. His job was to offer a threat that prevented the opposition from ever going too much on the offensive and to hold the ball up. If he scored, so much the better.
And it worked. But Portugal has developed since. There is a new generation emerging—and even another one after that, as demonstrated by Portugal’s progress to the final of this year’s European Under-21 championship.
By the time of the inaugural Nations League final four in June 2019, three years after the Euros, the changes were already clear. A pair of clean sheets against Italy had been instrumental in Portugal’s passage through the group stage, but by the semifinal against Switzerland, the shape was a 4-3-1-2 with Fernandes, arguably the player of that mini-tournament, creating from midfield but still deeper than Bernardo Silva and a front two of Felíx and Ronaldo. That game was won, 3–1, with a Ronaldo hat trick. For the final, against the Netherlands, Gonçalo Guedes replaced Felíx, and the shape was more of a 4-3-3. It was back to a 1–0 win, but this was a Portugal that was far more pleasing to the eye than the team that had won the Euros.
This is not an uncommon pattern. France won the Euros in 2000 with a side that was far more fluent than the team that had won the World Cup in 1998. Spain may have been more exciting in ’08 than in ’10, but it was more confident in its method at the World Cup than in Austria and Switzerland. The first tournament success can be a springboard for a more adventurous style of play: We’ve won it once, now let’s win it better.
But this past few years has also coincided with the emergence of arguably the best crop of Portuguese attacking talent since the early 1990s. Bernardo Silva has returned to form this season and was instrumental in Manchester City’s latest Premier League title success. Felíx, Atlético Madrid’s record signing, won the league title in Spain. Fernandes tired toward the end of the campaign, but for 18 months has been Manchester United’s most reliable creative player. André Silva has come into his own since leaving AC Milan for Eintracht Frankfurt. A loan move last season brought 12 goals in 16 Bundesliga games, and he followed that up with 28 in 32 in the most recent campaign, outscored only by the record-setting Robert Lewandowski—and outscoring elite rising talent Erling Haaland by one. Jota, when fit, scored vital goals for Liverpool (13 total in 30 matches across all competitions). Guedes may not have achieved the heights expected from him, but he remains in frame as a useful tool. All are 26 or younger, with Felíx a dynamic prospect at 21.
The challenge for Santos is which ones to leave out for his starting lineups, although his past record suggests he will have few qualms about leaving gifted creators on the sidelines. That could, though, become an increasing issue as this generation matures. Certainly, there is no sense that the departure of Ronaldo, whenever it may be, will leave a vacuum.
Five minutes of extra time remained in the Champions League last-16 second leg back on March 9. Juventus led Porto 2–1 on the night. It was 3–3 on aggregate and the series appeared headed to penalties. There was a sense that neither side would especially mind. Juventus had been outplayed for long periods, but Porto had been down to 10 men since the 54th minute. Sérgio Oliveira lined up a free kick. He struck it firmly and low but straight at the wall. The tension dissipated—but for only a moment. The ball passed through the wall and beat an unsighted Wojciech Szczesny in the Juventus goal. Something strange, evidently, had happened. On the replay it was clear: Ronaldo had turned his back.
It was one incident in a long season. Mistakes happen. Players sometimes do daft things. They sometimes make errors that would draw sarcastic comments on a schoolyard. But this was an error that felt emblematic. Oliveira’s goal—and it adds to the piquancy that the midfielder is now part of the Portugal squad—meant Juventus had to score twice in the final five minutes. It managed one but went out—yet another Champions league failure. Juventus had reached Champions League finals in 2015 and ’17 and had lost. Ronaldo was signed in ’18 for a basic fee of $120 million, an unprecedented fee for a 33-year-old, but then he did seem in unprecedentedly good shape for a 33-year-old. The theory was his goals would give the club the final push to carry it over the line. That might not be the biggest mistake that chairman Andrea Agnelli has made in the past three years, but it was bad enough.
Ronaldo has scored goals—101 of them over three seasons. He possibly did fulfill the marketers’ demand that he raise the profile of the team, though much of the good was done as the pandemic hit, and Juventus has slipped deeper into debt. But in the Champions League since Ronaldo joined the club, Juventus’s record in knockout ties reads: played four, won one. In his first season, the club went out to Ajax in the quarterfinals, in his second to Lyon in the last 16 and then to Porto in the last 16.
This season, although Ronaldo scored 29 league goals, he was notably anonymous in the big games. Just two of those goals came against Inter Milan, AC Milan, Atalanta or Napoli. The match against Porto passed him by. It’s to his credit that he has found a way to adapt, that as time has gone by and his body has changed, he has reinvented himself, a winger turned all-around forward turned old-fashioned No. 9. But that creates tactical issues for the rest of the team. He has never been a consistently diligent presser. These days he simply cannot do it. The hope for any coach, at least at the elite club level, is that his goals make up for the fact that without the ball, any side he plays for is essentially operating with 10 men. The better the opponent, the harder that compromise is examined.
The international level is different. The football is more basic, the patterns less sophisticated. A reliable source of goals matters more than a fluid and flexible front line whose job is as much stopping the opposition as creating chances. Ronaldo scored 11 goals in qualifying for Euro 2020, more than anybody apart from England’s Harry Kane, who scored 12 (Israel’s Eran Zahavi also had 11). Barring injury, he will be a regular in this tournament. But there will come a time, perhaps not before next year’s World Cup but in the not-too-distant future, when Ronaldo’s place in the national team is no longer justified.
After the 4-4-2 it operated out of at the World Cup, Portugal in this tournament looks like it will be operating in more of a 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 hybrid, with three of the creators operating between a deep-lying central midfield pair and Ronaldo, with both fullbacks likely to be relatively attack-minded. That would seem to allow Santos to retain a basic structure while tinkering to adjust to specific opponents—something all the more essential given Ronaldo’s limited movement.
The pieces are in place, even despite a brutal group draw featuring France and Germany (though you’ll recall a third-place group finish suited Portugal just fine in 2016, should it come to that). In addition to the aforementioned attacking talent, center back Rúben Dias was named Football Writers’ Association player of the year in England, and gave Manchester City a defensive steel it has often lacked. (João Cancelo, also a vital part of that City side, would have been an ideal attacking fullback here, but he is out of the Euros after testing positive for COVID-19, replaced by Diogo Dalot). Goalkeeper Rui Patrício had another solid season at Wolves. There are options at the back of midfield. There is a reliable goalscorer and a glut of creators. For Portugal, Euro 2016 was a glorious maiden triumph, but for all the drama of the moths and Ronaldo’s injury, the football was largely forgettable. In a decade or two, few outsiders will remember much about that Portugal team.
Euro 2020 could bring a second triumph, one that would resonate far beyond Portugal’s borders and one that could give Ronaldo the transcendence he so clearly craves. But the truth is that, while he remains the central figure for now, he has a much stronger supporting cast than ever before in a national shirt. It’s a team whose main core beyond Ronaldo is in its prime and that has a rising generation in the pipeline, with the likes of Dalot and U-21 Euro player of the tournament Fábio Vieira among that group. Soon, Ronaldo will not even be the lead. And Portugal will be positioned just fine.
More Euro 2020 Coverage:
• Straus: The Acclaim and Blame That Come With Lewandowski’s Name
• Straus: Belgium and the Weight of a Golden Generation
• Wilson: Eriksen’s Life-Threatening Scare Puts Everything In Perspective
• Wilson: England’s Win Over Croatia an Early Litmus Test