Monday 11 July 2016 14:55, UK
Cristiano Ronaldo might have succumbed to injury early on in Sunday’s Euro 2016 final but with Portugal going on to defeat France, the Real Madrid forward has added international honours to his long list of club medals. That matters for his legacy, writes Adam Bate.
Cristiano Ronaldo said Portugal deserved to win Euro 2016 "after many years of sacrifice".
It was Lionel Messi who was supposed to be the one to reframe the debate. For three summers in a row, the Argentine genius has been a kick or two away from adding major tournament honours for his country and going some way towards replicating the achievements of Diego Maradona and Pele in the international arena.
For Messi, that moment has apparently been and gone with his hastily announced international retirement. But long-time rival Cristiano Ronaldo can now lay claim to such an honour having added a European Championship with Portugal to the third Champions League triumph of his career that he won just six weeks ago in Milan.
In truth, Ronaldo was never under the same pressure to deliver as Messi. His circumstances weren't quite akin to those of George Best with Northern Ireland but nor was he weighed down by the burden of international expectation. Certainly not since missing the chance with Portugal's so-called golden generation as a teenager on home soil in 2004.
But he has achieved it nevertheless, hauling Portugal to glory. Of course, it didn't come in the manner expected. There was no trademark winning goal. Ronaldo wasn't even on the field of play for much of the match, injured early on and getting only eight touches of the ball. Reduced to a cheerleading role, his team-mates got the job done without him.
But few could begrudge him the celebrations. Nobody, not coach Fernando Santos nor Eder, the scorer of the winning goal, could seriously argue they did more. Ronaldo was their top scorer in both qualifying and the tournament itself. There were two vital equalisers against Hungary to keep Portugal in it and the headed opener in the semi-final win over Wales.
Sure, this wasn't Diego Maradona in 1986. But nor was it Ronaldo in the role of selfish solo artist either. He showed another side to his character. There was the sight of him cajoling and encouraging his team-mates before the quarter-final shootout win over Poland, attempting to infuse senior colleagues with some confidence when they needed it.
In the final, even when injury might have ended his influence, he was trying to direct proceedings from the touchline. Cedric Soares spoke of his stirring words in the dressing room during half-time. Eder revealed that he'd predicted his winner. "He gave me this strength, this energy, and it was vital," he told O Jogo.
Ronaldo himself was overjoyed. "I'm very happy," he said. "We made history. It was something we'd been looking for since 2004. We deserved it. I always thought we had what it took and our coach had the strategy to win. It's one of the happiest moments of my career. I have to thank everyone, my team-mates, the coach and the Portuguese [fans]."
He can be sure they'll all be thanking him too. Having completed the Champions League and European Championships double in 2016, Ronaldo seems certain to win a fourth Ballon d'Or and in doing so become the first man ever to regain the title on two separate occasions. It's a testament to his extraordinary longevity.
By the age of 31, Pele had retired from international football and it seems that Messi will be following a similar path. Maradona's best moments were behind him, too. Ronaldo has added a late flourish that should shape the way that he's seen. He's won the international trophy that Messi and other greats such as Johan Cruyff could not.
Most of all, a great individualist has emerged as a great inspiration as well. The man who reached the pinnacle of the club game with European heavyweights Manchester United and Real Madrid has become an underdog champion for his country. Ronaldo's already amazing career is now a completist's dream.
Does it accentuate Messi's international disappointments? The two men are perhaps destined to do that particular dance forever and it feels a churlish assessment in a team sport of such fine margins. But while it might be wrong to argue that Messi is diminished by Argentina's near misses, it's certainly true to say that Ronaldo is enhanced by this triumph.
Eder reveals Cristiano Ronaldo predicted he would score Euro 2016 winner.
We've seen the teenage tearaway who dazzled full-backs with his stepovers, the physical specimen who overpowered his peers and the plunderer or goals who shattered goalscoring records. On Sunday, Ronaldo showed us a leader of men in circumstances most difficult. His claim to greatness has never felt as persuasive as it does right now.