Portugal's Euro 2016 Victory Has Made Cristiano Ronaldo Much Easier To Love


It had just gone past 2am in Paris, when the first delighted Portuguese players began to come out of the dressing room. A lot of the younger players were first, including Cedric Soares. The full-back was fulsomely praising Cristiano Ronaldo and what he said at half-time despite going off injured, as he also reflected on what it all meant. It was at that exact point we really heard and saw what it all meant.

Soares’ words were quickly drowned out by singing coming from the entrance to the mixed zone, as an utterly delighted Ronaldo led a conga line. So joyously in in the moment that he couldn’t even begin to take notice of journalists’ requests to him for a few words, the star instead endearingly grabbed the heads of those talking to the media, especially long-time teammates and friends like Ricardo Carvalho and Ricardo Quaresma.

That in itself marked a difference. All through this tournament, Ronaldo has made a point of speaking to the press after games, and is one of the most generous in the mixed zone with his time. That is of course because he gets something out of it too, not least the opportunity to reframe stories according to the message he wants out there. We’ve seen the full range of it Euro 2016, from the frustrated comments that attracted so much controversial attention after the 1-1 draw with Iceland to the ostentatious sense of personal vindication after his two goals against Hungary served the perfect response.

It was not just that all of those previous problems had gloriously evaporated, though. It was genuinely as if all of the other issues, all of the extraneous debates surrounding Ronaldo - right down what it meant to his Ali-Frazier, Borg-McEnroe style rivalry with Leo Messi - had been forgotten in the moment. This was just about something more, something bigger.

There were of course a few old self-indulgences from his famous obsession with his media image, like when he asked a cameraman whether he looked well for his post-game interview, or the talk that “I deserve it”.

These are the type of things that are just hardwired, but it was still hard not to see a huge softening with Ronaldo. It was also hard not to have more a lot more respect for him.

This was not the self-absorbed figure from the start of the tournament, and that despite suffering the type of sad final moment and exit that would have for once made such deep individual obsessiveness fully justified. This was someone committed to something greater.

That could be sensed in the way Soares spoke about what happened at half-time. Although Ronaldo looked completely crestfallen on going off injured to the point you would have fairly thought it would have left him dejected for the rest of the game, Ronaldo seemed to very quickly snap out of it, to realise he could still contribute in some small way to something bigger than himself.

“I remember, for me and the team, everybody was a little bit in shock I think," Soares said. "In half-time, Cristiano had fantastic words for us, he gave us a lot of confidence and said 'listen people, I'm sure we will win, so stay together and fight for it'. It was really unbelievable. I think all the team had a fantastic attitude.”

Those words may not sound Vince Lombardi-like, and it may not seem that much, but it’s worth remembering the context here. This is a player who occupies such a huge place in the collective Portuguese psyche, who is seen as the centre of everything done by a team believed to be totally dependent on him… and here he was, completely backing them to do it without him. To win without him. To prove they didn’t need him.

The effect of that should not be underestimated, especially for so many young players. It would have meant the world to them. It meant the European Championship for them. It is also an extension of Ronaldo’s attitude to this team, and this manager. Those close to the Portuguese squad say he has a better relationship with Fernando Santos than any previous national coach, but that Santos has also cleverly used that get more on-pitch tactical sacrifices from Ronaldo. It's not a one-way partnership, and just deepens this sense of unity.

There’s no greater indication of that than the very fact they won without him and that it was another divisive figure, the impressively irrepressible Pepe, who personified Portugal’s approach and victory more than Ronaldo.

In a curious way, though, the manner of all of this actually only serves to enrich the Real Madrid legend’s career and the story around it. He got to show other qualities.

The irony is that it all means Ronaldo has now enjoyed the best year of his career in terms of trophies, while probably enduring his least influential in terms of overall performance since 2006.

That is of course not to say he has not been good - you could never do that when he scored the two goals that got Portugal through the group and then the key opening strike in the semi-final that got them into the final - but he hasn’t been as devastating or as dominant as between 2007 and 2013. His game has undeniably become restricted, only to eventually enjoy the ultimate release with this victory.

That only serves to illustrate there can be an unnecessarily binary nature to the conclusions about long-term careers deriving from single supposedly defining games like these, where one uncontrollable bounce of the ball can settle 90 minutes and apparently years of debate.

Ronaldo’s great international vindication ultimately came from a much-derided substitute brilliantly slamming in a punt of a long-range shot, as the star watched from the sidelines.

That’s not the strongest ground for argument, but then perhaps this isn’t about those arguments.

Perhaps this is about something more. Perhaps this is just about personal happiness and a country’s pride. Perhaps this is just about unencumbered joy.

Ronaldo’s own utterly delighted mood certainly suggested it was, and it was genuinely uplifting to see.