Published June 22, 2012
WARSAW, POLAND – Cristiano Ronaldo made a strong case for himself Thursday as the tournament 's most valuable player, lifting Portugal on to his shoulders and leading his side into the semifinals with a game-winning header that sent the Czech Republic home.
Ronaldo was the best player on the field by miles, and if he had the support up top he enjoys at Real Madrid , this game would not have been close. But Portugal's weakness remains the lack of a pure striker, and the Czechs have shown future opponents that you can stifle the great man -- but you need to do far more to shut him down completely.
What Ronaldo has shown off in these past two games is the marriage of hard work and pure clinical skill. Time after time Thursday, he ran the overlaps and opened up the lanes, only to see his less efficient -- and surely less forward-thinking -- teammates blow the opportunity.
His expressions of frustration, of fatigue, of sheer exasperation at his supporting cast's inability to think the way he does will be held up as examples of his petulance. In fact, they are the reactions of a man who simply cannot comprehend how other players do not see the game the way he does. As was the case with Michael Jordan when he was surrounded by lugs such as Luc Longley, Ronaldo's mind moves at a different rate.
Ronaldo clearly is stung by the thought that he is not a member of soccer's elite pantheon. He believes he should be mentioned in the same breath as Pele, Messi, Zidane and Cantona -- and sincerely seems baffled that he is not. His talents are as much a product of hard work as innate gifts, and yet all people seem to focus on is his early career as a flopper, not his late renaissance as one of the most blissfully accurate scorers ever to play the game.
This sits on his shoulders like a rucksack full of bricks. Not only does he have to carry a team of players that are marginally better than average, not only does he have to win every game for his nation, he has to hear about a guy who's not even at this tournament. Lionel Messi is the cudgel Ronaldo is constantly whacked over the head with, and his ire this past week at being reminded that he may not be as great as the little Argentine seems genuinely to rile him.
What doesn't seem to faze him at all is the outrage of the crowd. As was the case with Mexico striker Cuauhtemoc Blanco, a player who famously invited fans to "hate me more," Ronaldo seems instead to feed on the negativity when the lights are on. He was booed all night long by a Polish crowd that, halfheartedly, decided to root for the Czechs. (They were actually more enthused by chanting their own team's name.)
And yet, every time Ronaldo got on the ball, those boos disappeared a millisecond after the ball left his laces, all eyes turning to see if this would be the moment he would score, again.
He delights in turning the catcalls into, if not cheers, then gasps of awe. When he turned around Michal Kadlec at the end of the first half, picked a cross from Raul Meireles out of the air with what looked to be the stud on the bottom of his boot, the crowd at Warsaw National Stadium inhaled as one. He should have scored then: with a single step, he powered free into space, beat Petr Cech with a low drive - and was unlucky to see it come off the post.
Even a man as slippery as Ronaldo cannot win games by himself, and anyone watching the Czech's defensive effort for 70 minutes will have seen you can crowd him out of space. His goal, a header blown through Cech off an endline cross by Joao Moutinho, was an uncharacteristic one for a man known more for his shooting boots' prowess. But it was a sublime piece of finishing nonetheless, a combination of a fine cross and Ronaldo's quick turn that left his defender marking thin air.
By that point, after his teammates had missed chance after chance, it was certainly a goal he was happy to take.
Ronaldo still has much more to prove, much more to do. He has shown up when it mattered in these last two, critical games, but he seems a player cursed to be called a choke artist the next time he has an off-night. He is never going to win the mass of fans; his hairstyle is too perfect, his smile too wide - and his air too cocky.
And yet, anyone who looks beyond that sees what he truly is: the best player still playing at this European Championship.