He celebrated like it was his first goal for Portugal rather than his 105th. That undampened, naked desire is what keeps Cristiano Ronaldo going and makes him continually relevant. His emphatically finished penalty polished off doubt where there had been plenty. His smoothly finished second, leaving him just three short of Ali Daei’s international goal record, re‑emphasised his ruthlessness. Hungary didn’t deserve this, but Ronaldo happens.
It marked another to his litany of records, playing and scoring in a fifth European Championship, and it will mean something to him – but it’s not the record he is really after. Daei’s high-water mark is the one he wants, along with another European title. Once, his breaking of that biggest of records in this tournament would have been treated as an inevitability. Now many doubt it, despite four goals in his last five Serie A games for Juventus, helping the outgoing champions to scrape a Champions League place.
He had finished the season in much better (and healthier) form than back in 2016. Such has been the criticism he has taken for his part in Juve’s slide from the top – as if it was his responsibility to keep an eye on the balance sheet rather than Andrea Agnelli and Fabio Paratici – that it went unnoticed in some quarters that he was Serie A’s top scorer in 2020-21.
The first time that Superman had looked like Clark Kent was in 2014. That year Ronaldo shouldn’t, in retrospect, have gone to the World Cup, he later admitted. As was clear to anyone familiar with his pattern of working who watched those first few Portugal training sessions in Brazil, as he gingerly jogged and stretched out on a yoga mat, he wasn’t anywhere near fitness, “but my team needed me” he insisted in the eponymous 2015 documentary on his life.
It was a watershed. For Euro 2016 Ronaldo was much fitter but certainly not 100% and had been running on fumes during extra time in the Champions League final against Atlético in Milan, despite stepping up to ram home Real Madrid’s winning penalty in the shootout. But Fernando Santos, having succeeded Paulo Bento after the group-stage failure of 2014, had grasped the need for an approach that fully involved his superstar while being less reliant on him.
Santos’s use of a 4-4-2, with the willing and familiar Nani moved infield as his strike partner, spared Ronaldo unnecessary running. It worked well enough that Portugal recalibrated effectively after losing him in the final itself.
Today Ronaldo remains an icon, but this is not the most iconic version of him. The once sacrilegious suggestion that Portugal might have to move past him in the near future is now part of football discussion – less so in Portugal,it should be said. What is clear is while he can still be decisive, he cannot do so on his own.
Yet in the first half here, as the plainly superior Portugal continually banged their head against Hungary’s defensive brick wall, it felt as if they really did need him all over again. On the occasion of his 176th cap in a boiling Budapest – both in terms of temperature an atmosphere – it was no easy task, but he was willing as he was before. Hungary had caused Portugal problems on the road to the 2016 title. On that afternoon in Lyon Santos’s side had been ruffled and, trailing three times, threatened with the prospect of elimination before squeezing through as a third-placed qualifier. Ronaldo, naturally, rescued them with not one but two second-half equalisers.
“After our third goal, Cristiano was really pissed off,” Hungary’s then goalkeeper, Gabor Kiraly, told Mais Futebol in a recent interview. “Then I understood just how much he loves football. He’s not just interested in showing off cars, apartments and the good life. Is all that good? Of course. But he works so hard. In those Euros he showed his spirit and what a great person he is.” That persistence was needed here. There had been chances, reminiscent of so many other times that he has marked out his territory before making his move, none more as the skied finish from Bruno Fernandes’s cross flew wildly over as half-time approached.
Ronaldo’s other four Euros had already run the full gamut of emotions, from those painful teenage tears on the Estádio da Luz pitch after defeat to Greece in the 2004 final to ecstasy in lifting the trophy in Saint-Denis five years ago, an occasion that had looked like ending in bitter regret again after his contribution was curtailed by injury.
In the second half here he drifted into another arena, that of a frustrated spectator, as Hungary were fired higher by their cacophonous support and Ronaldo’s supply line dwindled to zero.
Help eventually came from the pacey Rafa Silva, introduced for Bernardo Silva to open up Hungary twice, as Santos foresaw. Ronaldo, as ever, was ready to receive. When it’s time to eat, he rarely needs asking to the table twice.