Fresh off a Champions League-winning campaign with Real Madrid, Cristiano Ronaldo is certainly feeling like the king of Europe at the moment.
His deciding penalty kick against Atletico Madrid sent droves of Merengues fans into delirium. This season alone the three-time Ballon d’Or winner scored a total of 51 goals for La Liga and the Champions League combined.
Between Real Madrid and Manchester United, ‘CR7’ scored a total of 481 goals; assisted 176 more and collected 17 pieces of silverware, including three Champions League titles, one with Manchester United in 2007/08 and two with Real Madrid in 2013-14 and this year.
But can he prove it on a different stage, altogether? Will Portuguese fans finally have something to celebrate as well, on the back of Cristiano’s efforts?
Ronaldo has 58 national team goals to his name, but no silverware. Can he finally deliver something that, in the eyes of many Portuguese fans, was stolen from them in 2004?
An encouraging development has been his Portugal side being drawn into one of the relatively easier groups – Iceland, Hungary, Austria – in France.
Portugal’s qualifiers to get there were not exactly smooth sailing at the onset, losing in the qualifying opener to Albania at home.
Despite the fact that this isn’t the most talented Portugal side in recent memory, Ronaldo may have one of his best major national team tournaments ahead of him.
The supporting cast has been the perfect blend of experience and talent, and will look to take their chances.
In 2004, when the tournament was held in his native Portugal, Cristiano was only 18 years-old. Despite his young age, his ability helped the Portuguese reach the final against huge underdogs Greece, nicknamed Piratiko, or the pirate ship.
On the way to the final, Ronaldo scored two goals and assisted twice, being featured in the team of the tournament.
In one of the biggest upsets in tournament history, his Portugal side lost at home to Rehhagel’s Greek side. The pain of that defeat stuck with the young CR7 for his entire career.
At the 2006 World Cup, Portugal bowed out in the semi-final to France, in a narrow 0-1 defeat.
Despite his excellent play at the tournament, he was slated for his alleged conduct in the quarter-final against England, in which many speculate he convinced the referee to send Manchester United teammate Wayne Rooney off, seen winking at the Portugal bench only moments later.
Despite an excellent qualification run for Euro 2008, netting eight goals for his country, he only managed a single goal at the actual tournament. Portugal were eliminated in the quarter-final against Germany.
For World Cup 2010 qualification, Cristiano’s struggles for the national team continued, as he failed to score a single goal in the qualifiers.
Barely qualifying, thanks to a playoff victory over Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cristiano’s 2010 World Cup in South Africa was also one to forget. Scoring only once in a 7-0 blowout of North Korea, Portugal were bounced in the Round of 16 against neighbors Spain.
The drought started to dissipate for Ronaldo in the Euro 2012 qualifiers as he scored seven goals en route to the tournament, and three more to propel Portugal to the semi-final, where they were eventually sent packing in a penalty shootout against Spain, once again.
Ronaldo was a joint top goal scorer for the tournament. At the most recent tournament in Brazil for World Cup 2014, Portugal could not escape the Group of Death, despite Ronaldo’s eight goals en route to the tournament and two goals in group stage play.
The resolute Ronaldo played injured despite risk to his career and long-term health. Portugal was eliminated on goal difference.
The most recent qualification campaign saw Ronaldo score five making him the leading all-time goal scorer for his country. Beyond his scoring ability, however, he’s been a much-needed contributor and wise leader in the chase for Portugal’s first piece of European silverware.
Portugal’s history at the tournament and recent form has suggested the side is more than capable of escaping the group as either first place or second place finishers.
For Cristiano on a personal level, he will want to compete with Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic to become the first player to score in four different European championships.
The team finished in first place during the qualification cycle in Group I, ahead of Albania and Denmark with 21 points.
Despite a very defensive campaign from virtually every side in the group, Ronaldo finished as the top goal scorer with five goals to his name. In Portugal’s last 10 matches, including friendlies, the team has won seven, thanks in large part to Cristiano’s six goals.
Losing their opening qualification match to Albania, Ronaldo rallied his side to seven straight wins to top the group. Despite the latest friendly win, a 7-0 thumping of minnows Estonia, Ronaldo told Record,
It was a good game and we should be proud, but it was just a friendly. We have to keep our feet firmly on the ground.
Wise words from the captain, and vastly different from his younger, more audacious self.
Of course the success of Portugal’s tournament in France will largely depend on the performance of their star man Ronaldo, but it will not be entirely on his shoulders.
If the captain is to rally his team for one of his final big tournaments, he will certainly need help from the supporting cast. Luckily, this year’s Portugal side has largely been firing on all cylinders with a nice mix of veteran experience and talent.
Ronaldo’s Real Madrid teammate Pepe, the leader on defence, comes into the tournament fully rested and healthy. The midfield led by Moutinho is more than capable of producing plenty of chances for Ronaldo and company up front.
They will certainly depend on all of their attributes against an under-the-radar Austrian side with plenty of attacking punch themselves.
Debutants Iceland will look to play spoilers at their first-ever big tournament, and Hungary to rekindle old glory, returning to the Euro for the first time since 1972.
For Ronaldo, the stage is set. His form has been excellent across the spectrum of club and country performances.
His health has no apparent problems at the moment, and the supporting cast in this Portuguese side seems more than capable of allowing him to do his best without compromising results.
At 31 years-old, even Cristiano realises that his big tournament chances are running out, and the window for success on the national team stage closing.
Will 2016 prove to be Portugal’s year? As always, the answer may lie with their talisman with the number seven on his back.