PARIS, France — Cristiano Ronaldo looks pained when he plays for Portugal. Face contorted, frustration etched across that chiselled visage and hands thrown aloft – playing for his country just doesn’t seem fun anymore.
There have of course been some good times over the years, some incredible moments. As a fresh-faced teenager Ronaldo burst on to the international scene at Euro 2004. He scored twice in the tournament, including Portugal’s crucial opening goal in the semi-final victory over Netherlands. He was hailed as Luis Figo’s natural successor, and boy did he succeed him.
At Euro 2012, too, Ronaldo showed his influence. A brace, against Netherlands again, took Portugal through the group, while he was their match-winner in the quarter-finals against Czech Republic. Then there was that wonderful salvo against Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s Sweden in 2013, Ronaldo’s four goals in two games dragging Portugal kicking and screaming into the 2014 World Cup.
Kicking and screaming is a pretty accurate depiction of Ronaldo’s display against Austria. He flitted between some brilliant football and the berating of his team-mates, that aggrieved look on his face almost certainly the one that also appears when he’s informed of another Ballon d’Or gong going to Lionel Messi.
Ricardo Quaresma was a particular source of annoyance for Ronaldo, the Real Madrid star seemingly forgetting that direct running and unpredictable invention were the qualities that launched his own career. He bossed Quaresma around, regularly forcing him to switch flanks, looking – and shouting – despairingly when the Besiktas winger failed to find him with either crosses or passes.
It may sound ridiculous to suggest but there could be a hint of jealousy from Ronaldo towards Quaresma. Portugal’s skipper will of course always be idolised by a Portuguese public who are proud that one of the world’s greatest ever players is one of their own. But Quaresma – a study in failed potential – is utterly adored by the fans who cheered his every move and gave him a standing ovation when he left the Parc des Princes pitch on Saturday. Ronaldo is lauded, Quaresma is loved.
One can, however, understand Ronaldo’s general frustration when he represents his national team. At Real, he plays week in, week out with galacticos who understand his game inside out. With Portugal, there seems to be a disconnect. His teammates know to give him the ball but they can’t seem to do it in the right place, or at the right time.
Quaresma was not the only one to feel Ronaldo’s wrath, Nani and Ricardo Carvalho among the recipients of stinging reprimands – while myriad others were greeted simply with a forlorn gaze to the heavens or a raising of those herculean arms.
The one player with whom Ronaldo has seemed to strike up a genuine understanding is Andre Gomes. The pair exchanged flicks and one-twos, and moved dangerously together between the lines. The burgeoning relationship may have even at times raised a smile from Ronaldo. Unfortunately, it is the exception not the norm.
There needs to be a greater understanding of his teammates’ fallibility. Ronaldo has always strived for perfection, a burning desire for self-improvement arguably his greatest characteristic, one that has certainly made him the player he is today. But it needs to be paired with self awareness. His comments about Iceland being a ‘small team’ were unquestionably borne out of personal dissatisfaction with his failure to score. But when Ronaldo talks, people listen and he would do well to remember that.
His actions against Austria, too, left a little to be desired. Ronaldo understandably looked dejected after missing the penalty but with his stare fixed firmly on the ground, it was left for Nani to tell his skipper to keep his head up, the ball already deep into the Portugal half after ricocheting off the post and leading to an Austrian counter-attack. Ronaldo’s disallowed goal minutes later appeared to put him on the verge of tears, while a furious scream left the veins on his neck literally throbbing after a late goal-kick was given instead of a corner.
To cap it off was the selfie with the pitch invader. Ignoring the invader would have been totally understandable given the fan has broken the law by entering the pitch and that Ronaldo had just suffered a bitterly disappointing result. Instead he posed, leaving a lasting post-match image of preening prima donna rather than Portuguese Man O’ War.
We are of course not privy to how Ronaldo is in the dressing-room. Perhaps he has a softer side and more gently appraises his teammates and opponents in private. In public, though, he continues to cut an unhappy figure for Portugal. For his own sanity, and for Portugal’s progress both in this tournament and in future, it is vital that Ronaldo starts to better recognise the weaknesses of those around him. As the fans say after all, there is only one Ronaldo.