Across what would have been Euro 2020, we are running a series on the players who defined each of the European Championships from 1972-2016 – and beyond that, left their imprint on modern football. After Andres Iniesta, it’s the turn of Cristiano Ronaldo…
It’s the nightmare for any football nation; your Golden Generation reveals itself, and then doesn’t cash in its potential and win a major trophy. Hungary set the tone for this back in the 1950s, when their Magical Magyars lost the World Cup Final to West Germany in Berne. The Dutch and the Danish have seen this film too; although both would later produce teams that would win the European Championship, their respective 1974-78 and 1984-86 iterations were more gifted, iconic and revered, but fell short of picking up the trophies to match their talent.
At the 2004 European Championship, that scenario was visited upon Portugal while they were hosting the tournament. They reached the final, and everything seemed in their favour. The 24-carat gold nuggets from their 1991 World Youth Cup winning team, Luís Figo and Rui Costa, were in their primes; FC Porto had just won the Champions League, and bolstered the team with Ricardo Carvalho, Costinha, Maniche and Deco; and, on the right of their attack, was one of the most devastating wide players in Europe.
Euro Icons – 2012: Andres Iniesta – the player who retired them all
Cristiano Ronaldo was just 19 years old at Euro 2004, but in the space of just six games his ability had promoted him from the status of someone who was in the squad to someone who was indispensable. He had scored two majestic headers along the way, against Greece in the opening match and the Netherlands in the semi-final. The Greeks faced Portugal in the final in Lisbon. Having won their first encounter, they stunned the home crowd again with a smash and grab 1-0 victory in the final. Most of Portugal’s best chances fell to Ronaldo. He was not yet a finisher, and accordingly he did not finish. As Greece celebrated their victory, Ronaldo was left caked in his own tears.
‘This kid nobody knew tore us apart for the whole game’
It had been the first real blip in a meteoric rise to fame. One year earlier, in a friendly between Sporting Lisbon and Manchester United to open the new José Alvalade Stadium, Ronaldo had served notice of his potential. “It was an incredible performance to watch that night,” said United defender Mikaël Silvestre. “This kid nobody knew tore us apart for the whole game. No one could get near him.” As they left the game, United’s players implored their manager to sign Ronaldo. Sir Alex Ferguson doesn’t take stupid breaths; the deal had been worked out before his team left the stadium that night.
Ronaldo had sufficient hubris to take on the number 7 shirt recently made vacant by David Beckham’s transfer to Real Madrid. United had intended to loan him out for his first season. Instead he was winning the FA Cup in May 2004 after opening the…
Read More:Euro Icons – 2016: Cristiano Ronaldo – A final that was all about Ronaldo