James Lawton: It's all about Cristiano Ronaldo... and that's how he likes it
Can the Portuguese individualist carry his side to victory against the Spain's embodiment of selfless teamwork?
Cristiano Ronaldo arrives in the unyieldingly tough town of Donetsk, where a month in the steel plant or coal mine scarcely covers the cost of life's essentials, as though from another planet.
He is, of course, and as he frequently points out, a truly fabulous creature, beautiful, self-obsessed and for some years now, and notwithstanding some notable charitable initiatives, the single most important occupant of his extremely singular world.
He gave a quite early hint of this while walking away from Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium where he won his first great prize of the Champions League with Manchester United in 2008. He was asked if perhaps he owed the supporters of that club some hint about his future plans. "I explain myself to no one – not even my mother," he declared.
It is also true that while he has intimate knowledge of his Spanish world and European champion opponents in tonight's semi-final, in some ways they might, like the hard, vodka-swigging shot firers and furnace men, also belong to an alien species.
Football has rarely known such a polarisation of the concepts of "I" and "us" as the one we can expect in the Iberian shoot-out at the Donbass Arena.
The issue is simple enough. Few players have ever believed in themselves quite as much as Ronaldo. Few teams have ever despised the cult of the individual more deeply – or successfully – than Spain. It means that Ronaldo is about to face something of an ordeal, one which might just decide a tournament which has rarely been less than intriguing.
While the Portuguese, led by coach Paulo Bento, mostly argue vehemently that they too are a team but one which just happens to have a player with the ambition, and maybe the means, to announce himself as the world's best over the next few days, the midfielder Custodio has offered one flash of candour: "Yes, we fight as a team but, let's be honest, our weapon is not a big secret."
Indeed, the extent of Portugal's debt to Ronaldo if they should win their first major trophy all these years after the great Eusebio, would be unprecedented in international football but for the fact that, 26 years ago, Diego Maradona all but carried Argentina on his back to World Cup triumph in Mexico City. Can Ronaldo do something of the same for his nation at this European Championship?
Clearly he thinks so. His body language has rarely been more animated and recently his potential to do more or less anything he chooses was endorsed by Maradona no less. Ignoring his luminous young compatriot Lionel Messi, Maradona announced: "I think that Ronaldo is now the world's best player."
It was an extraordinary, if maybe somewhat perverse, tribute to a player who has undoubtedly challenged Messi with his extraordinary scoring feats and sheer athletic versatility for Real Madrid in their breaking of the Barcelona stranglehold on La Liga.
Even so, and despite the momentum he has created for Portugal with three goals and killing interventions against the Netherlands and the Czech Republic, his Bernabeu team-mate and Spain's captain and goalkeeper, Iker Casillas, says, "I don't think right now he at his best level but no one has to tell me I must be on my guard."
If Ronaldo should happen to go up a notch tonight it could just be that the Casillas vigilance will have to reach optimum levels.
Ronaldo has already pointed out that his rival Messi has failed to deliver the South American title for Argentina and even by his own standards his reaction to any frustration here has been intense.
"It is a great moment in my life and Portugal's football, and I want this title very badly," he says. When he applied the sword to the Netherlands in the final group game, the Portuguese dependence on their captain verged on the hilarious.
In a blazing piece of role reversal, Ronaldo provided the perfect scoring opportunity for his team-mate Nani. The Manchester United player missed, horribly, and Ronaldo's face was consumed by disbelief – and then filled with absolute serenity a few minutes later when he fashioned a goal for himself with both sublime skill and unfaltering conviction.
His expression said that he was more than the man. He was, at that moment, the football universe.
It may be a beautiful state of mind but then there is no escaping the possibility of an ugly denouement. Two years ago in Cape Town, Spain's bone-deep faith in the team ethos overcame the sporadic brilliance of Ronaldo in a hard, ill-tempered World Cup second-round game.
Xabi Alonso, who found his own place in the Ukrainian sun with the two goals that beat France in the quarter-final, expects a similar outcome in Donetsk, saying: "The press say we are boring but we are very secure in the way we play and our coach [Vicente del Bosque] has a lot of faith in us – he gives us our liberty. Portugal and Ronaldo are riding high. We can make small adjustments, sure, for Ronaldo but playing as a team is the best way to stop any player."
Despite criticism that Spain's relentless and often beautiful passing rhythm has in some recent games tended to resemble an end in itself, and left them vulnerable to a late and possibly calamitous strike from technically inferior opponents, Del Bosque remains confident. He believes that the loss of certainty in front of goal created by the absence of leading World Cup marksman David Villa can be overcome by the Spanish system that so effectively starves the opposition of the oxygen of possession. What can Ronaldo do, he wonders, if he doesn't get the ball?
One source of profitable reflection, Ronaldo's critics say, might concern the fact that Pele, still generally accepted as the world's greatest ever player, had one supreme gift among an armoury of weapons that even Ronaldo might have envied. It was one of humility. "I never saw Pele," said Sir Bobby Charlton, "ever do anything that wasn't solely for the benefit of his team-mates. He knew how great he was – but he also knew the importance of the team."
Under the force of the Spanish inquisition, Portugal must pray that something similar occurs to the great Ronaldo.
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