If Ronaldo wins this for Portugal, it will be the best we've seen
22:09 GMT, 24 June 2012
If Portugal, by some miracle, are crowned champions of Europe next Sunday, it will be an achievement to eclipse even Greece’s triumph against the odds at the equivalent tournament in 2004.
Denmark’s victory from the beach in 1992 will not compare, either, nor various Italian World Cup successes that always seem to come when their domestic game is in disarray.
For a Portuguese win in Kiev would be, in essence, the work of one man. Cristiano Ronaldo would have won the 2012 European Championship.
Not literally, but metaphorically.
Going it alone: Ronaldo attempts an overhead kick against Czech Republic
Take him away, and it isn’t just that Portugal would not be in Wednesday’s semi-final with Spain; they would not be at the party, full stop.
No narrative here is quite as mesmerising as Ronaldo’s quest for glory. We have to search through almost three decades for a precedent, and to another figure who polarised opinion. This is Ronaldo’s 1986 World Cup; and he is this tournament’s Diego Maradona.
For Portugal to win here, overcoming first Spain and then in all likelihood Germany in the final, it is going to take the greatest feat of individual influence since Maradona made Argentina champions of the world in Mexico.
Sometimes an individual is stronger than the whole: Robin van Persie propelled Arsenal into the Champions League last season and Matt Le Tissier spent his career keeping Southampton up, but it is hard to remember the last time a country went so far into a major international event on the instincts of one majestic player.
Portugal squeaked here by the narrowest margin as it was: finishing second in qualifying Group H on goal difference from third-placed Norway.
The campaign began badly. Portugal drew 4-4 with Cyprus at home, then lost away in Oslo, both without Ronaldo.
Leading the way: Maradona lifts the World Cup in 1986
At this point Carlos Queiroz, Sir Alex Ferguson’s former assistant at Manchester United, was sacked as coach and replaced by Paulo Bento, since when, the story goes, Portugal have never looked back.
Yeah right. Portugal could have been coached by Fray Bentos – it means Friar Benedict and, yes, he did exist – and it wouldn’t have made the slightest bit of difference without Ronaldo’s return. Undoubtedly, Bento is getting more from his best player than Queiroz did and for this he deserves credit – but the fact remains that without Ronaldo he would have been powerless.
Portugal, like Manchester United, like Real Madrid, are transformed by his presence. There is nobody quite like him in the game today; no player who can hit a shot that just by its flight identifies him as the shooter.
The ball looks different when Ronaldo strikes it, taking on a unique yet familiar trajectory that starts low, rises, and then sharply dips like a bucking stallion.
The greats have contributed turns and tricks to football’s evolution but Ronaldo is arguably the first player in history to as good as trademark a talent as commonplace as shooting. Ferguson insists it’s only practice.
He must spend hours.
Dedicated: Ronaldo juggles a ball during training in Poznan
So, in this campaign, Ronaldo’s return coincided with Bento’s appointment and in the next 12 competitive games – eight qualifiers, four in these finals – Portugal have lost once and he has scored 10 goals and made three others.
Remove him and, without doubt, Norway would have finished runners-up to Denmark and played Bosnia-Herzegovina for Portugal’s place.
Teams featuring Ronaldo, however, do not miss out on goal difference. Manchester United would have won the Premier League last season had he still been at the club. So having dragged Portugal east, he has steered them out of the group (both goals in a 2-1 win over Holland) and through the quarter-finals (the only goal of the game against the Czech Republic). It has been a tour de force, an act like no other in world football right now.
Lionel Messi is surrounded by great players wherever he goes. Yet the moment Helder Postiga – 12 appearances for Tottenham Hotspur in 2003-04, two goals, sold after 12 months at a loss of 3.63m – appears to lead Portugal’s line, it is obvious the task Ronaldo faces.
His match-winning attempts are almost comical in their desperate intensity. He has had 29 shots in this tournament – 14 on target – which is more than Greece over four matches. Approximately every 12.5 minutes, Ronaldo has a crack. You would, too, if Postiga was your match-winner.
Of course, Maradona’s statistics from 1986 are simply mind-blowing.
Indebted: Paulo Bento (right) has Ronaldo to thank for his success
'This is Ronaldo’s stage, Ronaldo’s time, and if he can be
Portugal’s Maradona, the debate about the world’s greatest footballer
will open wide again'
He played every minute of every game and of Argentina’s 14 goals, scored five and made as many, having a hand in all three in the final. He attempted or created more than half of Argentina’s shots at goal, made 90 dribbling runs (three times more than any other player) and was fouled 53 times (winning twice as many free-kicks as any rival).
His second against England was tagged the goal of the century and a statue celebrates it outside Mexico City’s Azteca Stadium.
Ronaldo has a way to go before matching that roll of honour, yet time has also helped Maradona’s legend grow. It is now said that he was the lone talent in Argentina’s World Cup-winning team, but he is not as isolated as Ronaldo is now.
Argentina 1986 would have murdered Portugal 2012. They were not a stellar side, and Maradona’s gift would have eclipsed many far greater, but were better than is widely recalled.
Argentina let just five goals in over 630 minutes in that tournament and kept three clean sheets.
Oscar Ruggeri is still regarded as one of the greatest defenders the country has produced.
Jorge Valdano had won a league and UEFA Cup double that season with Real Madrid; six of the Argentina starting 11 in the final had won the Copa Libertadores, the highest honour in South American club football – and Maradona wasn’t one of them.
Three and easy: Ronaldo's goals saw off Holland and Greece
What is Ronaldo working with by comparison
Some fine players, not least Joao Moutinho, but their worth without him was revealed when the qualifying campaign began.
in the toughest group here, with Germany, Holland and Denmark, few
expected even Ronaldo’s inspiration to be enough to get Portugal to the
And it looked that way, at first, with the pressure at its height.
Facing Germany in the opening game, it must have appeared a daunting task to thrust this team into the later stages.
Maybe this is why Ronaldo started slowly, improving as the tournament wore on.
final group game with Holland was a straightforward knockout, so too
the quarter-final against the Czech Republic. And knockouts he can
influence simply by being the greatest player on the field.
the entire campaign, a run of six matches viewed uphill from the foot
of the toughest group, must have appeared more intimidating.
Incumbent: Messi is widely regarded as the current best player in the world
He is two away now, though, and getting stronger.
Logic suggests the quest must end in the Donbass Arena against Spain, that one man cannot ride the famous passing carousel and win.
Yet Spain are not Barcelona.
Ronaldo will be well aware who is missing and the point he has to prove. Sandro Rosell, president of Barcelona, said the club have an entire team with more talent than Real Madrid’s Ronaldo.
But they haven’t. They’ve got one guy who is arguably better. And he’s not here. So this is Ronaldo’s stage, Ronaldo’s time, and if he can be Portugal’s Maradona, the debate about the world’s greatest footballer will open wide again.
For frankly, without Ronaldo, Portugal would have about as much chance of winning this European Championship as Lionel Messi.
Two steps away: Portugal take on Spain on Wednesday night
UEFA are great… at ruining a spectacle
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Great team, Lithuania. Came fourth of five in European Championship qualifying Group I, winning one match in eight. Some feat that, considering there were two ties with Liechtenstein. Lithuania drew the one at home, and lost away. Still, a great team.
Almost as great, one imagines, as Bulgaria, bottom of European Championship qualifying Group G, having matched Lithuania’s solitary campaign win by securing three points in Wales.
Bulgaria did not win or score at home and, like Lithuania, conceded 13 goals in eight matches.
Great team, Bulgaria.
Playing fast and loose with the definition of greatness here is Martin Kallen, UEFA’s tournament director for Euro 2012 and a supporter of the expansion of the competition to include 24 finalists in 2016.
‘There are great teams who are not here,’ said Kallen, reeling off a list that included Bulgaria, Lithuania, Switzerland (finished behind Montenegro, never won a match away), Romania (won three matches in 10, two against Luxembourg, and finished six points off second-placed Bosnia-Herzegovina) and Slovenia (won four games in 10, scoring 11 goals, two of the wins and seven of the goals coming against the Faroe Islands).
‘The Scots are also not here – they bring a lot of emotions, a lot of atmosphere with them,’ Kallen added.
And a lot of fairly ordinary footballers, too, which is why they have not qualified for a major international tournament this century. Scotland have had it tough in some qualifying groups, true, pegged behind the likes of Spain, Italy, France and Germany, but have also failed to overcome Norway (twice), Belgium and Croatia.
The system wasn’t inadequate, their football was. Nobody is absent from Poland and Ukraine who deserves to be here. Indeed, it could be argued, given the Republic of Ireland’s showing, that the quality of international football in Europe is at its uppermost limit with 16 teams. Poland wouldn’t have merited inclusion without home advantage, either.
Mixing it up: UEFA's Euro 2012 Director Martin Kallen (left) has advocated a change in the tournament format
What is so infuriating about UEFA’s ruination of the world’s best football tournament is that they think we’re all stupid. For Kallen, who is a UEFA executive and we therefore suppose knowledgeable about football, to insist that the presence of a team who dropped four points to Liechtenstein in qualifying wouldn’t damage the standard of the competition is preposterous.
Unless Kallen is a fool, he knows the truth, as does UEFA president Michel Platini – but they do not entertain it because the motivations are financial and political. Letting in the also-rans secures national association votes and more qualifiers increases revenue, so who cares about the quality of the tournament
Some believe that Platini and UEFA are great custodians of the game in Europe. And they may well be. Great like the Bulgarian team that lost at home to Wales and Montenegro. Great in the manner of the Lithuanians, defeated 2-0 in Vaduz in front of 1,886 people.
Great the way steaming great pillocks are great. Great like that.
Lucky No, German success is self-made
Germany will have two extra rest days on their semi-final opponents, and played a Greece team so weak at the quarter-final stage that they could afford to rotate three first-choice players, give Marco Reus a competitive debut, and still win comfortably, 4-2.
Once again, this is no coincidence.
This is tournament management at its best and, including qualifying matches, Germany’s current 2012 European Championship record reads: Played 14, Won 14, Goals For 43, Against 11.
Flexing their muscles: Germany rotated their squad on Thursday night
There is no real precedent for this at a European tournament. The Soviet Union won the first competition in 1960 with a 100 per cent record, but that amounted to four matches, and they were given a bye into the finals because Spain refused to travel east.
France won every game on the way to lifting the trophy in 1984, but as hosts did not have to qualify, so won five games.
The only world champions to win every match, start to finish, were the Brazilians in 1970 – six qualifiers, followed by six wins at the finals in Mexico. Germany are 14 and counting, with two to go. A streak like that is not luck.
Our Plastic Brits would have been also-rans in the US
Where would Tiffany Porter’s Great Britain Olympic trial time have got her, had she stayed loyal to the United States, her country of birth Eighteenth.
Yes, you read right. Porter’s 100 metre hurdles run in Saturday’s final was 13.21 seconds.
She was beaten into second place by a multi-eventer, heptathlete Jessica Ennis. Yet at the equivalent competition taking place in Eugene, Oregon, there were 17 athletes who got inside Porter’s time.
The slowest qualifier for the final, Nia Ali, ran 13.02. To make the United States Olympic team, Porter would have had to beat third-placed Lolo Jones’s 12.86.
She has managed that in her career, but
not very often. And, in American athletics, history truly is bunk
because there is no wildcard place, as exists in Britain.
Off the pace: Porter (left) lost out to Jessica Ennis in the 100 metres hurdles final at the British Olympic athletics trials in Birmingham on Sunday
Porter could have finished last this weekend and still made the Olympic team if selectors admired her past performances and deemed the trials an off-day.
So deep is America’s talent pool, however, that USATF take the first three trial runs, without exception.
Yet it is often insisted that Porter did not declare for Great Britain because she could not take the heat in her own country.
To suggest so, to believe it is wrong that Porter has dubiously claimed the Olympic place of a home-produced athlete, or wrongly wiped the achievements of one very dedicated British runner, Angie Thorp, from the record books, is to invite hostility from UK Athletics head coach Charles van Commenee.
Porter is his captain and would have been an Olympic contender for the States had she not chosen to embrace her British heritage, it is claimed.
True – she just wouldn’t have been a very successful one.
(In other news, Shana Cox, Britain’s imported 400m runner, qualified for the Olympics with a time of 52.87. This would have given her the 13th berth in America’s trials – meaning she would not have made Sunday’s final – being faster than Ebony Eutsey’s 53.22 but not quite up there with 12th-placed Rebecca Alexander’s 52.69. Not that she is here for convenience, either. No, like Porter, she just fancied a change.)