For eight years, European football had been waiting for this moment. Cristiano Ronaldo is starting to impose himself on a tournament, starting to replicate his remarkable club form for Portugal, and threatening to do what even Lionel Messi has not, and win a trophy for his country.
It should be no surprise that the greatest European footballer since Johan Cruyff is starting to bend a European Championship his way. But there is a difference, as Messi knows, between club and international football. Until last Sunday, it felt as if Ronaldo might never quite be as influential and successful for Portugal as he has been for his three clubs.
But something changed on that Sunday night in Kharkiv, and now Ronaldo is one game away from returning to the final that, as a tearful teenager, he lost to Greece in Lisbon. Portugal's progress to the semi-final, not very widely predicted before the tournament, owes everything to two of the best individual performances in the history of the competition.
First was the Netherlands, backed by many to emerge as champions. For all the talk about Robin van Persie, Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben, Ronaldo made it immediately clear who the most important player on the pitch was. With Portugal behind early on, he thumped a shot against the post before calmly equalising from Joao Pereira's perfect pass. Then, collecting Nani's cross, he embarrassed Gregory van der Wiel and put Portugal 2-1 ahead. He still found time to hit the post again, but the work was done: Portugal had been dragged alive out of the "Group of Death". It was described in Portugal as his best ever performance for the national team, at least until the next one.
Because after that came Thursday night's quarter-final against the Czech Republic. Ronaldo was just as good and just as important. The Czechs knew the source of the danger: Ronaldo could not touch the ball without being surrounded by two or three opponents. Often in these situations the marked man's team-mates take over and exploit the extra space. But not on Thursday. Even with three men trying to silence him, he was still the loudest voice on stage.
One thrilling piece of skill nearly gave Portugal the lead. Ronaldo chested down a pass with his back to goal, spun backwards past defenders and shot, agonisingly, against the base of the post. Another brilliant effort – this time a free-kick – hit the post in the second half. Just as against the Dutch, Ronaldo was undeniable: Joao Moutinho chipped in a cross from the right, and Ronaldo threw himself at the ball and headed it down, over Czech goalkeeper Petr Cech, and in.
Again, Ronaldo had dragged his team with him. Of course, the Portugal coach, Paulo Bento, was keen to remind that this was a team achievement. "All the players have tasks on the pitch," Bento said, "and Ronaldo played to our tactical system". Maybe so, but this was an individual achievement before it was anything else. Diego Maradona still needed a competent defence and midfield behind him in 1986, but no one could dispute that the glory was his before it was anyone else's.
The excitement grows out of the fear that we would never see Ronaldo play like this in a tournament. This is the first time he has reached three goals in a major finals, having scored one each at 2010, 2008 and 2006 – after two in 2004. This has come amid arguably the best sustained run of form in the history of the game. In the past six seasons, three each in Manchester and Madrid, Ronaldo has scored 237 goals in 299 games. A record that only Messi can surpass (244 in 295), but all the more impressive for being split between two different but difficult leagues.
Tournaments, though, with their knockout games, alien environments and thrown-together teams are harder to influence than the more meritocratic domestic leagues. Ronaldo finding a way to do it, making it his own as he has done in England and Spain, is the transfer we were all waiting to happen.
Now the prospect of a semi-final, maybe even against Spain. "We know it is going to be difficult, but we are ready, we are confident," said Ronaldo. "We are very mature, so we are ready for the fight."
With Ronaldo now in the business of point-proving, there is a sense that he might prefer Spain to beat France tonight. "People in Spain say he does not play well against the big teams," explained Portuguese journalist Goncalo Lopes. "Against Spain he will do the maximum to beat them. He wants to respond to the Barcelona players."
On Wednesday, should they meet, Cristiano Ronaldo will certainly want to remind Spain's Barça core that he has already beaten them to one title this summer. He will want to score past club mates Sergio Ramos and Iker Casillas, also. He will want to take Portugal back to another European final, but win this time. He will want to show that he is currently the best player in the world, and quite right too, because he is.Reuse content