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Cristiano Ronaldo, Alexis Sanchez drive Portugal, Chile in different ways

KAZAN, Russia -- You want to look ahead to the first Confederations Cup semifinal, to the champions of Europe taking on the champions of South America (or, more accurately, given last year's Copa Centenario, the champions of "the Americas"). You reckon you're going to do it through the prism of each team's biggest attacking star.

And then you run into a problem.

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Chile wins 3-0 on Penalty Kicks.
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Because when Cristiano Ronaldo is on one side of a parallel, unless the guy on the other is named Lionel Messi, there is no symmetry, no possible equivalence. Alexis Sanchez is one of the finest attackers in the world right now; Ronaldo is one of the finest ever and a fixture in the GOAT (greatest of all time) debate.

Yet if you look at things a bit more closely, there is a common thread.

Both are often referred to simply by their first name, a distinction reserved for sporting royalty: LeBron, Serena and Peyton do not need James, Williams and Manning.

Both Cristiano and Alexis come from countries that -- were this NCAA hoops -- would be described as mid-majors: fine traditions, some outstanding individuals, but often denied silverware by bigger, better-resourced regional powers. Yet both have carried their respective countries to international success for the first time: Alexis' Chile won the Copa America in 2015 and, a year later, Cristiano triumphed with Portugal at Euro 2016.

Both were hugely hyped from a very young age, plucked away from their oceanfront hometowns and sent to the big time.

Alexis grew up in Tocopilla, a town in the far north of Chile known for its saltpeter mines. At 17, Italy's Udinese paid his club Cobreloa $2.5m; a huge fee at the time given his age. He was loaned out first to Colo Colo in the Chilean capital Santiago and later to Argentine giant River Plate.

Cristiano was born and raised in Funchal, the capital of Madeira, an island in the Atlantic Ocean, some 600 miles away from the Portuguese mainland. At 12, he moved to Lisbon to join Sporting, where he remained until his move to Manchester United six years later.

Precocious talent leaving home at a young age to pursue a calling is a familiar trope. What strikes you about these two if you watch old YouTube clips is how their game has evolved, in part responding to the passing of time -- Alexis is 28, Cristiano is four years older -- and in part responding to the how the game has changed over the past decade.

Young Alexis was almost ethereal, skipping and floating around the pitch. He did little off the ball, mainly because he played for a counter-attacking side but also because he was a lot happier with the ball at his feet than without it.

He'd roam around the opposition defense, looking for space and calling for the ball and, when he got it, he rarely gave it up until someone took it from him or until he had a chance to shoot. His critics said he'd be a complete player only if and when he learned to be physically tougher and learned to love the ball a little bit less.

Today, he's a compact powerhouse, a pressing machine who plays with aggression and intensity. He seems as happy when he wins back the ball as he does when he scores.

Alexis Sanchez, left, and Cristiano Ronaldo, right, met before in El Clasico. On Wednesday, they go head-to-head again.

Cristiano had the Adonis-body back at 18 years of age just like he does now, except it came with a terrifyingly quick first step that enabled him to lose defenders almost at will. He thrived in open spaces and his footwork broke angles like an Allen Iverson crossover.

Yet there too, the critics found flaws. His Man United teammate Rio Ferdinand said he was a "show pony" -- all style and little substance -- while others lamented his lack of "end product."

(Younger readers may not believe me at this point given that Ronaldo is only the most prolific goal scorer in the history of Europe's five biggest leagues, but Google searches do not lie.)

Today, while the diva routine is alive and well, he saves it for breaks in play like goal celebrations (usually his own): When the game is going on, no movement is wasted, everything has a purpose, nothing is done for the viral highlight. And, as for the "end product," well, more than 600 career goals speak for themselves.

But perhaps most striking is how both men have adapted themselves to their national sides, tailoring their game to what is most needed when they represent their country.

Alexis is ready-made for the high-energy, uncompromising style laid down first by Jorge Sampaoli and now by Juan Antonio Pizzi. On a team packed with charismatic leaders -- think Gary Medel and Arturo Vidal -- it's all about the collective and Alexis is more than happy to slot in and be a cog in that Big Red Machine, rather than the hub of the wheel, as he often is with Arsenal.

With Cristiano, it's something of the reverse. He remains, of course, the Main Man of Madrid, but the European champions can beat you so many different ways that not everything is about him or has to go through with him.

With the national side, it's a bit different. His contemporaries, including Nani, Ricardo Quaresma and Joao Moutinho, defer to him, while a gifted crop of youngsters -- Bernardo Silva, Andre Silva and Raphael Guerreiro among them -- look up to him.

If, at club level, he is the biggest of many stars in a supergroup, with Portugal he is the star and the others are unnamed back-up musicians, their names written in seven-point type on the liner notes. It's the difference between Roy Orbison performing with the Traveling Wilburys and doing a show with a bunch of studio musicians.

It's not a knock and it's not ego. Being the focal point means drawing all the pressure and attention and taking on responsibility, something the younger Portuguese players need. And that formula served him and them very well at the Euros.

Both Alexis and Cristiano began their journeys in similar places, both went through comparable challenges and both are leading their national teams to new heights.

Only they're doing it in different ways.

Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.


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