Throughout his outstanding club career, Cristiano Ronaldo has had the luxury of playing alongside world-class talent. From his time at Manchester United with the likes of Wayne Rooney, Ryan Giggs, and Rio Ferdinand, all players who were in their prime at the time, to Real Madrid with countless superstars like Gareth Bale, Sergio Ramos, Karim Benzema, Mesut Özil and many more.
While his club career has been a huge success, Ronaldo’s performances with Portugal have been heavily scrutinised and criticised by the media. In the past, it has seemed like the team have been too reliant upon him, and his team-mates, when called upon to perform, have shied away from big moments at major international tournaments. Ronaldo wasn’t the only one to blame in their coming up short.
In 2004, at just 19 years of age, Ronaldo enjoyed huge success in his first major international tournament at the European Championship. Led by the brilliant Luis Figo, Portugal were one of the favourites.
They topped their group with six points, and the young Ronaldo led them to the final with a powering header early in the first half against the Netherlands in the semi-final. Although they lost to Greece in the final, the future looked bright not only for the 19-year-old but for the Portuguese in general.
At the 2006 World Cup, five-time and reigning champions Brazil were heavy favourites. France, led by Thierry Henry and Zinedine Zidane, were expected to get close to lifting the trophy, too. Portugal were seen as dark horses, but the amount of talent in their squad suggested that they were really a powerhouse. Figo was past his prime, but Ronaldo had just begun to announce himself as one of the most promising stars in the world. A Selecção made it to the semi-final before losing 1-0 to France.
While 2004 and 2006 allowed Ronaldo to express himself without the pressure of being the main man and allowing more established players to take him under their wing, the 2010 World Cup was the first time that the weight was on his shoulders to deliver for his country. Things did not go as planned.
Portugal got out of their group, but Ronaldo only managed to score one goal in the process and in the Last 16, they were comfortably seen off by their Iberian rivals and the eventual winners, Spain. In 2014, Ronaldo once again only scored one goal as his team failed to get out of the so-called “group of death” alongside Germany, the United States and Ghana.
Leading up to Euro 2016, many people doubted Portugal’s chances for success and it seemed as it was going to be the same story. The dark horses, however, wanted to write their own history. Ronaldo, coming off winning the Champions League, was poised to make a run at winning his country’s first ever international trophy.
They did so in the most unorthodox of ways, winning only one game in 90 minutes; against Wales in the semi-final. In the final itself, Ronaldo limped off injured, but his team-mates were able to seize victory on their own as they beat host nation and heavy favourites France 1-0 in extra time.
The future of Portugal is bright. There are many talented young players coming through the ranks and Euro 2016 gave the world a glimpse of their potential. Ronaldo, now 32 years old, isn’t showing show any signs of slowing down. When he does decide to call it quits for Portugal, however, they will be in good hands.