Cristiano Ronaldo stood in the center circle and wept, inconsolable. Portugal, after 17 years without defeat in Lisbon, had lost the one that really mattered, beaten 1-0 by Greece in the final of Euro 2004. Ronaldo was 19, prodigiously talented, and saw a dream thwarted. That was 12 years ago today and Portugal again contemplates a week that could end with it, at last, winning its first senior international trophy.
After the Czech Republic had fallen to Greece in the 2004 semifinal, the way seemed clear for Portugal, the host, even though it had lost to Greece in the opening game of the tournament, It didn’t work out like that. Angelos Charisteas headed in a 57th-minute corner and the party Portugal had planned was abruptly canceled.
Twice Ronaldo had chances to level. Two minutes after the goal, he was thwarted by the Greece goalkeeper Antonios Nikopoloidis. A quarter of an hour later, in space in the penalty area, he blazed over the bar. The gasp of the crowd sounded like a nation being deflated.
"We had a fantastic team and we have played a great tournament and we don’t deserve to lose like this," Ronaldo insisted, a claim that foreshadowed his comments after the draw against Iceland in this tournament about the sheer unfairness of a team that had the audacity to play defensively against his Portugal.
He was upset, he said, because he was “an ambitious person” and he wanted to be “the champion of Europe at 19 years of age." But there was a vow for the future.
"I have to move on," he said. "I have to look forward. There will be many other opportunities to win in Europe throughout my career, and make up for this huge disappointment."
The attitude may be familiar, the face, even the haircut, much the same.
But the Ronaldo of 12 years ago is physically strikingly different to the modern version, thinner, more willowy, a player who still seemed at heart a tricky winger. A relentless will to improve, a rigorous discipline, hours and hours in the gym have transformed him into an unimpeachable block of muscle, but lithe, explosively quick muscle. He is the physical template to which other forwards should aspire, big, strong, supple, ferociously quick and powerful in the air.
Perhaps the acceleration is not so searing as it once was, perhaps at 31, age is beginning to pluck at the legs a little. Certainly for his country, Ronaldo is increasingly a player who haunts the box. He doesn’t go looking for the ball deep; he waits for it to be delivered. But with this Portugal midfield, a bristling, increasingly effective unit, that makes sense. International football is not a subtle game, but Fernando Santos, the Portugal coach, seems to have pared it back more than most: he sits eight men deep and leaves his trickster duo of Nani and Ronaldo up front to conjure something.
Nani has earned 101 caps, Ronaldo 131. They had two years playing together at Manchester United. Given there are about five occasions in every game when Ronaldo throws his hands down in fury at what he sees as an error by Nani, that means he’s probably spent an entire 90 minutes of his life physically expressing his frustration at his younger teammate. But it was Nani’s pass to Ronaldo that unlocked Croatia in the best moment Portugal has produced in the tournament.
Ronaldo hasn’t seemed quite himself in France. His two finishes against Hungary were superb, but in other games, his calibration has seemed slightly off, as though he were still suffering the affects of the injury that so clearly–for all the denials–hampered him in the Champions League final. His statistics are remarkable. His average of 7.2 shots per game is three higher than the next highest, that of Gareth Bale and Kevin De Bruyne.
But he’s dribbled remarkably little, completing just 0.4 per game, a lower figure than 171 other players in the tournament. This is the mature Ronaldo, the brooding, hulking king of the penalty area, far removed from the skipping sprite of the wing of 12 years ago.
Yet the ambition remains, the desire to inspire Portugal to a first trophy. On his watch, Portugal has gotten to a World Cup semifinal and two European Championship semifinals. In the time before his debut, it had reached just one of each. And that’s despite Ronaldo being slightly let down by the generation that succeeded him. This squad features eight outfielders aged 30 or over and eight 24 or under: there are very few at what is traditionally considered a player's peak age.
Ricardo Carvalho, who at 38 played in each of the group games, is also a veteran of that 2004 final. Perhaps this time Portugal will end up on the other side of the storyline, as the unfancied defensive outsider edging out the host in the final.
For Ronaldo, at his curiously solipsistic world view, it would be the perfect tale of redemption.