by Stuart James
Real Madrid forward relishing extra freedom given by manager and knows time for excuses is over.
Think back to the 2010 World Cup and the abiding image of Cristiano Ronaldo is of a man leaving the pitch in Cape Town with a face like thunder. Portugal had just been vanquished 1-0 by Spain at the last-16 stage and Ronaldo, a passenger for much of the evening, was a picture of pent-up frustration. His tournament was over, the only goal to his name had come against North Korea and, for once, Portugal’s golden boy had no desire to be the centre of attention.
The television cameraman that pursued Ronaldo at the final whistle got a close-up shot of him unleashing a mouthful of phlegm as he stomped towards the tunnel, where he promptly got something else off his chest. When a microphone was shoved under his nose in a post-match interview, Ronaldo’s terse response was interpreted by many as a sign of how exasperated he had become with his manager’s negative tactics. “How can I explain [the defeat]?” Ronaldo replied. “Ask the question of Carlos Queiroz.”
Fast forward two years, during which Ronaldo has plundered a remarkable 113 goals in 109 appearances for Real Madrid, and the world’s most expensive footballer appears to be in a much happier place when it comes to pulling on a Portugal shirt. Queiroz’s replacement, Paulo Bento, who played alongside Ronaldo at Sporting Lisbon, has set Portugal up with a more attacking mindset and given his former team-mate a license to thrill by relieving him of the burden of playing as a lone striker and deploying him in an inside left role where he has the freedom to roam.
This time, in other words, there will be no excuses for the Portugal captain to fall back on if he fails to sparkle. At the age of 27, the former Manchester United winger should be at the peak of his powers, overflowing with confidence on the back of a season when he scored 60 goals for Real Madrid and relishing the chance to demonstrate that he can make all the difference for Portugal in a daunting group where tonight’s opponents Germany and the World Cup runners-up Holland are the favourites to qualify.
Joachim Löw, the Germany coach, described Ronaldo as “a star that can decide a game on his own with his speed and dynamism”. Nobody would argue with that description but so far, as with Lionel Messi, we have seen only flashes of brilliance from Ronaldo on the biggest international stages.
This will be his fifth major tournament for Portugal and the statistics up until now do not make for brilliant reading. A player that has averaged more than a goal per game for Real Madrid over the last three years has managed only five in 19 appearances at two European Championships and two World Cups. To put that record into context, Thomas Müller scored as many for Germany at the World Cup in South Africa alone.
It is not just Ronaldo’s lack of goals, which have come at a rate of one every 306 minutes in international tournaments, but the fact that when he has scored, it has tended to be against weaker opponents, rather than in the games when Portugal need him most. The opening goal he headed against Holland in the Euro 2004 semi-finals is the only one Ronaldo has registered in eight knock-out appearances, which helps to explain why there is a growing sense of exasperation among some people at home.
“The Portuguese public want to know if Cristiano Ronaldo is, finally, going to perform for the national side,” Vitor Serpa, chief editor at A Bola, told World Soccer. “Up to now, he has been more of an individual than a team player.”
In fairness to Ronaldo, he played well enough in Euro 2004 to merit a place in Uefa’s all-star team and was on the shortlist for the young player of the 2006 World Cup award, only to lose out to Lukas Podolski, largely because of his antics against England in the quarter-finals, when he was accused of conspiring to get Wayne Rooney sent off.
In the last two tournaments, however, Ronaldo has flattered to deceive, which is something that Portugal cannot afford to happen this time around. This, after all, is not the “golden generation” of yesteryear.
Bento’s team face Germany at Arena Lviv on the back of a goalless draw at home against Macedonia and a sobering 3-1 home defeat against Turkey. They only qualified for the finals via the play-offs, behind their other Group B opponents Denmark, and there are obvious shortcomings in the Portugal squad. They lack a creative playmaker in the mould of Deco or Rui Costa as well as a top-class striker to play through the middle and will go into this game with slight doubts about Nani’s availability because of an ankle injury.
All of which only increases the weight of expectation on the shoulders of Cristiano Ronaldo dos Santos Aveiro, although the man himself could not have looked more relaxed last night. “In this moment I don’t feel any anxiety,” Ronaldo said. “We are in a very strong group. We have to play without pressure andhave to play with fun. That’s the advantage of Portugal not being the favourite.. Of course we have our own goals in this competition. But the most important thing is the team itself and after that comes the individual players.”