One of the things I have most enjoyed about watching Euro 2012 games broadcast live on Ukrainian television is that whenever the commentator mentions Cristiano Ronaldo, he often tags three puckered air kisses onto his name. Although I doubt Sir Ian Darke would add this commentating piece of genius into his oeuvre, the gimmick perfectly captures the central tension of the Portuguese star's career to date: the battle for superiority between his undeniable skill and peerless ego. Seeing him play is like watching another human being's mind and body engage in "Mortal Kombat."
Ronaldo's pre-tournament narrative revolved around his apparent inability to perform at the international level. Although he had managed to pelt a century of goals faster than any player in Real Madrid's history, a Portuguese jersey appeared to strangle his skills. The world's most expensive club player had netted only one goal in his last three international tournaments, a storyline that reveled in the classic dramatic conflict of “hubris” (arrogance) and “nemesis” (downfall).
At Euro 2012, the Portuguese captain has flipped the script. After a wobbly start, he has delivered a pair of performances so awe-inspiring, they have made his arrogance seem like self-confidence by grounding it in fact. The tournament's joint top scorer, he has notched the winning goal in two consecutive matches to lead Portugal into Wednesday's semifinals against Spain. All while managing to hit the woodwork five times, more than any other player in history.
The pouting Ronaldo has become potent. Restated by coach Paulo Bento to his favored position on the left flank, he has become the most menacing individual performer at Euro 2012, able to torment opponents with both his feet and his head. His free kicks have become such must-see television that they almost deserve their own spinoff show.
Few would have predicted this after Portugal's opening game: a 1-0 loss to Germany in which Ronaldo was lost to the periphery, managing only 38 touches, 10th-most on the team. Whether this was due to his teammates' inability to service him or that Ronaldo seemed determined to spend most of the game with hands on hips, shaking his head with frustration, remains unclear. At the final whistle, he departed the field with abnormal haste, causing journalists to type the words "preening" and "show pony" in each of the world's alphabets.
It would get worse. Portugal fought out a 3-2 victory against the Danes thanks to an 87th-minute strike by unheralded substitute Silvestre Varela, but Ronaldo's performance was clumsy. The Real Madrid superstar certainly found more space and ability to influence the game by vacating his wing and drifting into the center, running at the Danish defense like a windup toy, but his finishing was wayward. Three times he ran in on his opponent's goal, and three times the ball was scuffed or mis-hit, as Danish fans goaded him gleefully by chanting Lionel Messi's name from the stands.
There is a classic soccer cliché star players tend to employ in postgame television interviews when they have scored a winner, in which they earnestly tell the camera: “My goal wasn't important; what really mattered was that the team won three points.”
As he dragged himself off the field surrounded by jubilant teammates, Ronaldo's countenance suggested he had the opposite thought in mind.
After the game, the icon snapped at waiting reporters.
"Do you know what [Lionel] Messi was doing this time last year? He was going out of the Copa America in the quarterfinals," Ronaldo said.
It was an emotionally revealing statement referring to his archrival's similar challenges at the international level. In the past six seasons, Ronaldo has scored 237 goals in 299 games, a record that would be superlative if Messi had not rolled home 244 in 295 games. Even when the tiny Argentine was absent at the Euros, his specter hung over Ronaldo's head.
Those who tuned in to Portugal's final group game with the same motivation people employ when attending a public execution were to be sorely disappointed. Although the Netherlands went ahead early through Rafael van der Vaart, this was to be Ronaldo's night. One lashed drive against the post was to be his naysayers' last delight because in the 28th minute, the Portuguese striker calibrated his scoring touch and turned his tournament around.
A flashing, diagonal drive was well-spotted by teammate Joao Pereira, whose perfectly angled pass bisected four Dutch defenders. Ronaldo picked up the ball in stride and lashed it past Maarten Stekelenburg into the Dutch goal. It was only his sixth goal for Portugal on his 102nd shot.
More was to come. Nani spotted his charging captain on a counterattack and slid the ball invitingly toward him. But Ronaldo decided to score when he was good and ready, electing to humiliate tumbling defender Gregory van der Wiel by cutting inside him and then rifling home the winner.
Portugal emerged out of the Group of Death with all its limbs intact, and Ronaldo's vanity seemed like swagger. The Portuguese media hailed his performance as the best he had delivered in a national jersey, but it was just a trailer for the game that was to come.
In the quarterfinal against the Czech Republic, Ronaldo's performance was a virtuoso display of skill, desire and aggression. Running at the desperate Czechs all night long, he conjured 33 attacking-third touches, dispatching eight shots at goal and hitting the post twice before propelling a technically delightful downward header home from the far post. Between every pass, shot and tackle, the star stared up into the sky and addressed the heavens as if continuing an ongoing dialogue with God in game.
Despite the defining nature of Ronaldo's individual performances, his coach has been eager to maintain an emphasis on the collective. In the aftermath of the Dutch victory, he refused to single out his star.
“Right now, above all else," Bento said. "We're happy and proud of what we've done as a team.”
Ronaldo's accompanying cast has certainly performed with increasing cohesion. João Moutinho has silently crafted danger in the midfield: Nani, prowling the flanks, is very much the Scottie Pippen to his captain's Michael Jordan; Fábio Coentrão has caught the eye at left back; and just the thought of Pepe sends upcoming opponents scurrying to reinforce their shin pads.
But in the run-up to the semifinal, Ronaldo will fill Spain's waking house. While the defending champions undoubtedly will devour the majority of possession, coach Vicente Del Bosque was clear.
"They [Portugal] don't need a lot of play because on a counterattack, they can send a long ball to Ronaldo," Del Bosque said. "It's obvious that Cristiano is unique. There is nobody like him."
Del Bosque will throw one Real Madrid clubmate after another at Ronaldo in an effort to throttle him, including Sergio Ramos, Xabi Alonso and the last line of defense, Iker Casillas. But if Spain has a weak link, it is right back Álvaro Arbeloa, and the prospect of the Portuguese star driving at him for 90 minutes suggests he may yet produce one more of Euro 2012's defining moments.
If he does, the world may finally admire Ronaldo even more than he does himself.