Not only has the player evolved but the goal celebration has, too. Cristiano Ronaldo’s double against France was a tribute act to himself, steering his side away from potential elimination in nerveless fashion with two timely goals in the third group match of Euro 2020, just as he had done in 2016.
As he matched Ali Daei’s international goalscoring record, which he will aim to surpass against Belgium on Sunday, he combined his two iconic celebrations – pointing to his chest and then the floor (“Stay calm, I’m here,” he used to mouth as he did it) and the more recent flying flourish, accompanied by a communal “Siiiii” from the stands. It was a self-referential nod to the span of a career chock-full of big moments, a bit like Elvis segueing Don’t Be Cruel into Suspicious Minds.
A week earlier, the story was different. In Portugal’s Euro 2020 opener Ronaldo was baited mercilessly by the Budapest crowd – and in thoroughly unsavoury fashion by some, with Hungary under Uefa investigation for homophobic chants from sections of the Puskas Arena.
When he netted his first goal that day, smashing a penalty past Peter Gulacsi to finish off the hosts finally, he sped towards the corner, defiantly scowling at the home fans before leaping in time-honoured fashion. Ronaldo has not always enjoyed being heckled, but he has learned to use it as fuel.
Motivation is clearly not an issue, if it ever was. At Portugal’s last major tournament, the 2018 World Cup, some wondered whether the fire was starting to flicker. “It’s not the time to talk about the future of the coach, the players, the squad,” he said in the corridors of Sochi’s Fisht Olympic Stadium after their exit at the hands of Uruguay. “But you can be sure that this national team will continue to be one of the best in the world.” It felt like the start of a goodbye, or at least space to consider if a step back from the international game would give him greater longevity at club level.
This conclusion never sat easily with those who know Ronaldo well. Playing for Portugal has always meant so much to him – a joy rather than an obligation. The outside world only really began to grasp this as he celebrated on the pitch after the Euro 2016 final five years ago. Never had he looked so ecstatic after a match in which he had been unable to play a major role.
Ronaldo has always embraced the emotion of international football, immersing himself to the point that he has often insisted on only speaking Portuguese in media engagements. While the camp’s habitual way of supporting him has been to add “the best in the world” as a suffix to his name when it came up, he relishes being part of the team. In one training session this past week he grinned as he snuck up on Pepe before pouring a bottle of water over his head, an image far from the common portrayal of him as a joyless record-chaser.
Portugal duty has become his refuge from the hyperbole of his everyday. Ever since Juventus’s surprise Champions League exit to Porto in March – in which he was blamed for everything from the disintegration of Juve’s defensive wall to his wages stifling a potential squad rebuild – his status as an asset has been widely questioned. That he finished as Serie A’s top scorer in a floundering, fourth-placed team has been glossed over, and he is not unaware of that.
Even now, with every trophy bar a World Cup in the bank, he feels he doesn’t always get his dues. That sense of injustice has never left him in his career. Lionel Messi has never had to cope with being taunted by chants of his rival’s name. It was compounded by the lack of unconditional love Ronaldo felt he deserved from Real Madrid’s match-going fans despite winning four Champions Leagues and scoring more than a goal a game for nine years.
If ever he was going to be venerated in light of recent events, it was always going to be with Portugal. The relatively scarce pre-tournament chatter around the possibility of him matching – or breaking – Daei’s record must have piqued his pride.
So it will have been be a source of enormous satisfaction that he needed only the group stage to reach Daei’s 109 mark. Few out there are foolish enough to take issue with the fact three of his five goals have been penalties, especially during a tournament in which players have been queuing up to miss spot-kicks.
Despite the injuries – the ones that ruined his 2014 World Cup and stymied him in Euro 2016, for starters – and an age-driven remodelling of his game, his numbers continue to speak loudly for him: 57 of his Portugal goals have been scored since his 30th birthday in just 60 matches, under a coach in Fernando Santos who is as circumspect as any among Europe’s leading nations.
Portugal will rightly be second favourites against Belgium in Seville, but Ronaldo is never ready to throw in the towel. Against a Belgian defence that is ageing slightly less gracefully than him, he could stay in his happy place still longer.