Even a man who remakes history as prolifically as Cristiano Ronaldo still has unfulfilled dreams. Or maybe just one. After equalling Michel Platini’s goalscoring record at the European Championship to send Portugal into the final at Wales’ expense, and in the process crushing comparisons with Gareth Bale, he is now 90 minutes away from the one achievement that will render the most remarkable of careers complete.
“Record breaking is something nice,” he told the press after his goal and assist put Portugal into a final against either France or Germany. “I’ve broken many before and I’m still breaking records for club and country; but this comes naturally and the crucial thing was to make the final. Me and the boys have always dreamt of being there; I’ve always dreamed of winning something for Portugal and it’s just one step away. Let’s keep dreaming.”
With Ronaldo, anything is possible. This has not been a vintage campaign for Portugal: their elimination of Wales was the first match they have won in 90 minutes at Euro 2016. But Fernando Santos has forged a resilient and clever unit which snuffed out Bale in the second half as they simultaneously extinguished Chris Coleman’s hopes of being the first man to lead a British team out in a major final since Alf Ramsey 50 years ago.
Ronaldo’s post-match debrief with Bale, conducted as cameras swarmed around the pair and the proud cheers of the departing Welsh echoed around Parc Olympique Lyonnais, seemed heartfelt and genuine. “They were a shining star here,” Ronaldo said he told him. “A revelation team. I wished them good luck.” Two Real Madrid colleagues and peers united in respect. But equals? No. The 90 minutes which preceded their chat made a bad joke of the comparisons between the two individuals.
Portugal's forward Cristiano Ronaldo (L) comforts Wales' forward Gareth Bale after the Euro 2016 semi-final football match between Portugal and Wales at the Parc Olympique Lyonnais stadium in Décines-Charpieu, near Lyon, on July 6, 2016. Portugal won the
Image credit: AFP
Not because Bale has not been the driving force behind the most astonishing story in this championship. He has, and he rightly spoke of his “pride” after Wales were defeated, waved off to enormous cheers from a group of supporters who have enjoyed the ride of a lifetime. It is not even because Bale has not had a more impressive tournament than Ronaldo; until Wednesday night he surely had. And even in the first half here he looked the brighter of the two supernovas, with his driving runs at pace and inherent threat.
It is simply because Ronaldo exists on his own plane; at least in Europe. And when you consider that Lionel Messi is now a convicted criminal, sentenced to 21 months in jail which he will not serve, it strongly invites a reappraisal of the good-bad dynamic which exists between the tax avoider and the man who has, despite all the histrionics and self-obsession, devoted himself to Portugal in this tournament. He has exuded leadership when his team have most needed it.
“We are a team - the national team are a unit,” he explained. “That’s how we’ve been acting since the beginning. I’ve been trying to help by scoring, scrapping, fighting with defence; I’ve given it my all. Like the gaffer says, there has been great teamwork and players have been fighting very hard. In order to win we have to have 23 players fighting. I believed in my heart we would go far in the Euros. We didn’t start as well as we wanted to. But this isn’t the 100m, this is a marathon. We got through to the knockout stages and when you think Nani, Renato [Sanches] and [Ricardo] Quaresma have all scored. We are a team - it’s not all about me.”
Still, Ronaldo cannot help but make it about himself; that’s what extreme talent will tend to do. And three minutes was all it took for him to take the game away from Bale and Wales. Five minutes into the second half he produced an awesome leap to climb high above James Chester as if suspended from a crane and slam a header past Wayne Hennessey. Stylistically it was different, but in terms of casting Ronaldo as an unstoppable physical force it had something in common with the famous header he scored for Manchester United against Roma in the Champions League in 2008.
Then he turned provider for Nani - though in true Ronaldo fashion, this assist was actually a shot of his own which his strike partner diverted past Hennessey with a witty intervention. But still, a goal and an assist; he has three of each for the tournament now.
The goal drew him level on nine with Platini. But the Frenchman’s all came in Euro 1984; Ronaldo’s have been spread across four tournaments and as well as being the first man to score in a quartet of Euros, he is now also the first man to score three or more goals in two editions. Oh, and he became the first man to play in three semi-finals. Just another day in the life of Ronaldo.
Portugal's forward Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates
Image credit: AFP
It is these kinds of feats, constantly recurring, which ensure Ronaldo will be viewed in isolation when it comes to the greats of European football. Bale is a super player in his own right and should be celebrated as such, but as his tournament ebbed away from him he almost seemed to be parodying his more vaunted colleague, indulging in ridiculous long-range efforts in an attempt to somehow miracle a goal, and some hope, for Wales. It was not to be.
Portugal’s dream persists unto Paris, though, and for Ronaldo it is as vital as any of the achievements that have garlanded his career. Perhaps even more so. That much was clear as he was invited to revisit Portugal’s defeat to Greece in the final of 2004 - a night which left him bereft, his face cloaked in tears.
“I was 18 and it was my first final, my debut,” he said, “Now 12 years have gone by and I’m going to play another final. I’m very proud of that. I have always dreamed of wining for Portugal and I hope it’s our turn now. I’m very confident and believe I deserve it, Portugal deserve it, the fans deserve it and all the Portuguese people at home and abroad have been amazing supporters. I don’t think many people thought we would make it but that fills me with pride. Now we have to get ready and hope this dream comes true.”
It is the last one Ronaldo has in football. And it could be one of the sweetest.