Love Him Or Hate Him, Cristiano Ronaldo Became the Leader His Team Needed at Euro 2016

Euro 2016’s culmination was the perfect final of the European Championship: a drab and dull procession of 120 minutes of languid soccer, a lateral stasis, an infinite game of chess, wherein the participants refused to be exposed. Yet, if the tournament got the winner it deserved with Portugal, a team that won just a single game en route to the final and finished third in Group F behind Iceland and Hungary, Euro 2016’s denouement was all about Cristiano Ronaldo.

Deep into the Parisian night the strapping Portuguese player – often vilified for his attention to his looks and castigated for his egocentrism – proved once more that he is not merely a superlative soccer player who embodies the traits of a contemporary super athlete, but also that he is genuinely authentic and altruistic, and not the end-all-be-all of his own universe.

In the 12th minute, France’s Dimitri Payet, who had set the tournament on fire in the opening days, curtailed Ronaldo’s final with a very abrasive fault – one English referee Mark Clattenburg, living his very Howard Webb moment, didn’t spot. The Portuguese wailed in pain, yet Clattenburg remained both blind and stone-deaf. The fatalistic fault shook Ronaldo, who had considered the final to be a coronation of his unwavering self-belief and determination – the kid from Madeira not only crooning about self-advancement, but also obsessed with winning.

France had imposed a 12-minute swagger on their opponents, akin to the opening exchanges of the semi-final against Germany, but Payet’s foul demeanor incrementally eroded their game. By the 17th minute, Portugal’s no. 7 was teary-eyed, the magnitude and finality of his injury siphoning through. Ronaldo encouraged. He always and incessantly asserts that he is the universe’s best. The injury didn’t fit into the narrative.

And so, Ronaldo regrouped. He got up and limped to the touchline to strap his thigh and knee. For both Portugal and him, a last-minute fathom antidote to prevent a match-defining injury. Ronaldo hobbled and hobbled, limped and limped, and then threw the captain’s armband at the floor in despair. He finally capitulated to the simmering pain and his defunct knee. A moth did console him, but in tears, again – reminiscent of his Euro 2004 final against Greece – Ronaldo was stretchered off, lonely notwithstanding 8,000 vociferous Portuguese fans in the stands, millions of aficionados back home and a few comforting words from Deschamps.

Inadvertently, an apocalyptic Portugal excelled without Ronaldo on the pitch. They enjoyed a resurgence, with their defensive block coalescing even more, turning to a very robust shape, all spearheaded by an unwavering Pepe. The French scampered, frightened and terrified by a CR7-less final. Moussa Sissoko was a lightbulb on a “blue” collar team. Griezmann, France’s boyish darling, nearly headed his way to immortality. But in extra time, Eder crowned Portugal European Champions with a fine finish.

Yet Ronaldo’s influence was always omnipresent; he turned into a coach from the sidelines. CR7, with the histrionics of a manic zealot, became a new Fernando Santos. He delivered his own half-time talk, his own pep talk after the regular playing time and prowled in the technical area in extra time.

His demeanor, if somewhat unusual (imagine Lionel Messi, Neymar or Luis Suarez doing the same), was a definite game changer. In the other technical area, French coach Didier Deschamps drowned in a somber solitude, despite the presence of 75,868 partisan fans and millions of TV viewers, screaming Les Bleus forward. He grimaced as France flocked forward in search of a grab-and-smash late equalizer to force penalties.

Ronaldo’s desire and drive were refreshing in today’s corporate, money-obsessed soccer. His stream of tears – the ultimate competitor shriveling in front of a global audience – and intimate relationship with the Portugal shirt were an expression of authenticity, even new raison d’être in the beautiful game. Yes, he, initially still had his own individual celebration on the sidelines, but Ronaldo had sacrificed everything for his nation. As the Portuguese players exited the Stade de France with song and dance well after 2 a.m., that was celebrated as much as the coveted victory. You should fête Ronaldo too.