Of all the chapters of Cristiano Ronaldo’s career – and all the associated twists and turns within them – the one taking place right now is without question among the most surprising.
It looked like most of the book on Ronaldo’s time at soccer’s peak was written, for how could it be any other way after his humiliating World Cup experience to close out 2022, followed by a move away from the attention of Manchester United to Al-Nassr of the Saudi Pro League?
Yet here we are, Ronaldo’s 39th birthday exactly two months away, and with him having quietly (if such a thing is possible with 614 million Instagram followers) pieced together a spectacular comeback year, while Portugal enters next summer’s European Championship as one of the favorites. And no, those two things are not coincidental.
“The impressive aspect of Cristiano is he plays the game or trains like it’s the first time that he’s doing it – he has got this contagious focus of wanting to be the best in training and then everything follows on,” Portugal head coach Roberto Martinez told FOX Sports’ Stu Holden.
“It doesn’t matter what he has won in the past, it doesn’t matter the age that he has, the amount of things he has played. He is unique in the way he approaches the day-to-day and that is an incredible influence for any [locker] room.”
Portugal got about as good a draw as it could have hoped for last weekend when the balls were spun and the teams got variously pooled for next year’s Euros in Germany. They’ll face Turkey, Czechia and the winner of the weakest remaining playoff path; either Greece, Georgia, Kazakhstan or Luxembourg. All things considered, anything other than routine progression out of Group F would be a major disappointment, especially given how well qualifying went.
With Ronaldo as captain, Portugal has been imperious. They are the only team to win all 10 of its group games and Ronaldo’s 10 goals trail only Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku across all teams. He’s also drawn widespread approval for his efforts. Whatever barbs have been leveled at him, and yes, he can be a diva, he likes things his own way, and he hasn’t always been a great teammate, you can never question his loyalty to his country.
He has played an extraordinary 205 times for Portugal now, a world record in men’s soccer, and the turnaround is such that supporters of his national team can’t imagine life without him. A complete turn from a prior position where it resoundingly seemed they’d be better off with him gone.
At the World Cup, things became rather farcical. An explosive interview Ronaldo gave with Piers Morgan that criticized Manchester United boss Erik ten Hag overshadowed Portugal’s buildup to the World Cup.
His subsequent departure from United, via mutual agreement, overshadowed the team’s arrival in Qatar. His refusal to fulfill his captain’s duties by skipping a pre-game news conference – where every question was about him anyway – overshadowed the opening match against Ghana.
By the time the knockout stage rolled around, he was relegated to the bench and eventually, the campaign fell apart with a quarterfinal defeat to a Morocco squad that was every bit as communal as Portugal was disjointed.
For Ronaldo, it seemed like the end. Not so fast.
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His resurgence started, in part, because he refused to treat his Saudi adventure as a first step into retirement. By the time he started playing for Al-Nassr, the Saudi league had revamped itself by bringing in swathes of elite talent, with the likes of Neymar, Karim Benzema, Sadio Mane and N’Golo Kante all joining the league.
The standard is still not at the same level of what Ronaldo has experienced in England, Spain and Italy, but it has been more than enough to keep him sharp, and he has performed well, winning the league’s Player of the Month award on back-to-back occasions.
With Portugal, it is likely there would have been no way back, except that former coach Fernando Santos was fired after the World Cup and replaced by Martinez, who immediately made it clear he believed Ronaldo still belonged in the system and was considered a valuable cog.
Cristiano Ronaldo scores in 46′ to give Portugal a 1-0 lead vs. Liechtenstein
Portugal took a 1-0 lead vs. Liechtenstein in 46′ after Cristiano Ronaldo scored.
Bringing Ronaldo firmly back into the fold was a bold move, for even in his own homeland many had given up on him being a productive national team player any longer. As an incoming coach, opting to start afresh with younger players would have been a forgivable exercise.
Instead, Martinez spoke to Ronaldo and heard everything he needed. If there was an MVP for Euros qualifying, Ronaldo would have been near the top of the list, and make no mistake, Portugal is a threat if it keeps playing like this.
What Ronaldo does next summer will be one of the stories of the Euros, no question about it, because he is one of the biggest personalities international soccer has ever known.
There will be stiff competition across the board. England has the most in-form player in the world in Jude Bellingham, France came within a whisker of repeating as world champs, host nation Germany is desperate to prove gloomy predictions wrong, while Spain, reigning champs Italy, and Belgium, will all be able to convince themselves they have a real chance.
But Ronaldo brings a special level of attention that flattens all else. The Euros provided the one major international trophy of his career, but it was bittersweet, as he was forced off early in the 2016 final against France due to a knee injury.
It would have sounded absurd to say this a year ago, but he is back in position to help his team contend for the title, in what would be an incredible way to end his international career.
At least, we assume it would be the end. We thought that once before.
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