Cristiano Ronaldo could never have imagined winning Euro 2016 like this
SAINT-DENIS, France -- Cristiano Ronaldo will have dreamed of this moment for years. He has won almost everything there is to win for his clubs, but he had never won anything for his nation. Even in his strangest dreams, he could never have imagined that it would happen for him this way.
This is not how Ronaldo usually wins. Ronaldo usually wins with well-struck shots or sublime subtlety like that back-heel against Hungary. He wins when he endures the sort of pressure that crushes ordinary men like tin cans. But he had never won from the technical area, arms aloft, directing his players through the last stages of a lung-busting cup final prior to Sunday.
A glimpse into the future? Ronaldo the manager? Probably not. He will need neither the money nor the stress. But here he was, injured and exhausted, channelling every thing he had, every last ounce of personality and celebrity, all in the hope that it might make some kind of difference on the pitch. And perhaps it did.
Asked afterward if he felt that this was the high point of his career, he agreed. "I always say I win everything in terms of clubs, then as individual, but I always say I never win something for Portugal," he said. "But I win tonight. I'm so happy, it's a moment I cannot describe.
"I'm so glad, it's something unbelievable in my career, something that I deserve. Today I had bad luck because I had a small injury, but my colleagues do it. They run, they fight, we played against everyone, we played against 70,000 people in the stadium, nobody believed, but we won."
It would have been a profound shame had Ronaldo's tournament ended, as it seemed it might, with the sight of him being carried from the pitch, his knee beyond immediate repair, his face streaked with tears. For all that he can rile and annoy people, he is one of the greatest footballers of his generation. He will be 33 when the next World Cup rolls around, 35 for the next European Championship. This really was it.
If he had failed out on the turf, that would be fine. That would be football. But to be neutralised by a crunching challenge before he'd even had a chance to impose himself on the game, that just felt like cruel fortune. He didn't want to go. He tried twice to continue, even as the French fans jeered and howled. But eventually even he had to relent. His race was run. On the pitch, at least.
"It was tough because we lost our main man," Pepe said. "We had all our hopes in him because he's a player who can at any minute score a goal, because we know his abilities, but when he said he couldn't go on, I tried to tell my teammates that we have to win it for him, that we were going to win it for him, that we were going to fight for him."
Ronaldo, knee strapped and training top on, reemerged at full-time as his teammates slumped, drained and depleted on the turf. He strode through their ranks like a king before a battle, a quiet word here, a pat on the shoulder there. He did it again after the first period of extra time, looking measured and composed.
But when Eder slammed home his 109th-minute winner, that composure evaporated. Ronaldo celebrated alone on the sidelines, his hands over his face as the entire bench raced onto the pitch to mob the goal scorer. The tears flowed freely, the adrenaline coursing through the Real Madrid man's veins. He couldn't sit down. He couldn't take his place with the other players. He had to be there, on the touchline, making an impact. Any kind of impact.
One member of the coaching staff tried to urge him back to the bench, but with limited success. Like the moths that surrounded the Stade de France floodlights in their thousands, Ronaldo was irresistibly drawn to the action. In the end, the coaches left him alone, happy to let him shuffle up and down the touchline, bellowing instructions at players who were probably too tired to listen. And the clock ticked down.
Pepe, named man of the match, laughed when a journalist asked him how he felt about his new "assistant manager," but he was diplomatic about it.
"The gaffer is our leader," he said. "On the pitch, we're all managers, because the gaffer lays down the tactics and on the pitch we do our best, but in fact the older players are there to incentivise and help younger ones."
Seconds before the final whistle, Ronaldo grabbed coach Fernando Santos and shook him vigorously. Santos looked awkward and uncertain. Managers do not celebrate until everything is confirmed. But then referee Mark Clattenburg blew his whistle and there was nothing left to worry about.
"Our skipper, he had an immense effort," Santos said later. "We had amazing team spirit, he had amazing team spirit. Twice he tried as much as he could to get back on the pitch, but he couldn't do it. But being there in the locker room, on the bench it was very important to us, the way he reached the lads, incentivised them, he believed, like I believed, that tonight was our night."
Again, the bench ran to the pitch to celebrate. Again, Ronaldo stood alone for a moment, eyes wide and flushed in the face. He hugged a coach and they fell to the floor, Ronaldo's shoulders heaving. And then he was back on his feet. He limped out to the pitch, congratulated his teammates one by one and because, even in the strangest dreams, some variables will always remain the same, he peeled off his shirt.
This is the victory Ronaldo had craved for so long. The international success that moves him, permanently if his retirement holds, ahead of Lionel Messi: one medal to none. It is the culmination of a life spent in constant pursuit of excellence. No, this is not how he would have imagined it happening, but as he lifted the trophy above his head and roared with delight, you suspect that he wasn't even remotely concerned.
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.