Cristiano Ronaldo winning Euro would give him special place in history
PARIS -- Yup, this would be a game-changer. For all the silverware Cristiano Ronaldo has won at club level, helping Portugal become European champions would be something different.
It's not simply about the old argument over whether you can be in the conversation about being the greatest of all time (GOAT) if you never win the sport's biggest prizes. That's a popular, if silly, equation which infects other sports as well: Just ask Barry Sanders or Dan Marino, Elgin Baylor or Allen Iverson. Indeed, it's often used to refute the GOAT claims of his archrival Lionel Messi. He's been in four major finals for Argentina and lost every last one, most recently last month's Copa America final.
You can rationalize away that argument in many different ways, most persuasively the fact that football is a team sport and whether or not you win titles is often down to other factors, like the talent around you.
But winning a major tournament at the international level is a wholly distinct experience. And if Ronaldo did it with Portugal, who were not among the pre-Euro favorites, it would be entirely new.
Since 2003, when Ronaldo joined Manchester United, and through his years at Real Madrid, he's generally been the best player on the best team (or close to it). Most of the time he stepped on the pitch, he was the favorite on the heavy favorites and, perhaps, an instant turnoff to the kind of neutrals who instinctively cheer on the underdog.
There's nothing underdog about Ronaldo. Not in the way he plays. Not in the way he talks. Not in the way he looks. Not in the way he dresses. That's fine. He doesn't pretend otherwise. In fact, he embraces it.
But this Portugal side is different. This is a classic side in transition, a blend of veterans on the slide or close to it (Pepe, Nani, Bruno Alves, Joao Moutinho, Ricardo Carvalho) and inexperienced guys who have yet to hit their prime (Raphael Guerreiro, Joao Mario, William Carvalho, Renato Sanches, Danilo, Andre Gomes). It's not a coincidence that going into the semifinal against Wales, Ronaldo had 42 more caps on his own than the rest of Portugal's outfield players combined, minus Bruno Alves and Nani.
What's more, before the victory over Wales, they hadn't actually won a game in regular time of 90 minutes, drawing all three group stage matches, going deep into extra time against Croatia and beating Poland on penalty kicks. They alternated periods where they created plenty but finished poorly with moments when they seemed content to defend and do little more. Ronaldo, Nani and the keeper, Rui Patricio, are the only players to have started every game and, especially in midfield, we've seen manager Fernando Santos continually tweak his personnel in search of the right fit.
On the flip side, Portugal have defended extremely well in most matches (Hungary being the exception), worked tirelessly -- though not always effectively -- in midfield and displayed a level of unity and team spirit we rarely see from top sides.
In short, they scrapped and clawed and bruised their way this far. Don't take it from me. Ask Ronaldo.
"We are a team, a unit," he said after the Wales game. "I've done my best to work hard and help out, not just by scoring goals but by fighting and scrapping. We've all done it together."
That's the quality of Ronaldo we don't usually see, the fighting and scrapping part. Not because he's lazy -- he isn't -- but because most of the time the teams he's played for don't need to fight and scrap to the degree we've seen from Portugal in this tournament.
This is a blue-collar, hard-hat team. That makes it different from the usual canvas on which Ronaldo works, but also distinct from the others in the GOAT conversation. Consider the other obvious parallel, the one with Diego Maradona's performance at the 1986 World Cup. That, too, was a scrappy, humble team with a resident superstar. The difference is that Maradona carried the side through the knockout stages. Ronaldo hasn't done it to the same degree. While his goal against Wales was as immense as it was important, for most of the knockout phase he hasn't had his scoring boots on right. He's been crucial, and without him they may not be here, but he hasn't been the one-man juggernaut that Maradona was on a comparably talent-challenged side in 1986.
But that doesn't diminish Ronaldo. On the contrary, it shows a maturity and willingness to sacrifice his role and find other ways to make himself useful while he waits for the finishing mojo to kick back in.
People often comment on his diva tendencies. In the right context -- say, Real Madrid, the self-described Harlem Globetrotters of football -- it's not a problem. A little extra showbiz does no harm. But here, at least until the likes of Joao Mario and Renato Sanches become the players their agents say they will become, Portugal don't need a diva. They need a big brother, someone to take responsibility, give reassurances, chase away the fears and be the first into battle.
Ronaldo has embraced that role, even when he hasn't been at his best.
This is uncharted territory for him, an entirely different habitat.
Winning the Euros would mark not just his first major trophy with his national team, but his country's. It would mean succeeding where the Portuguese legends -- Eusebio and Mario Coluna to Luis Figo and Paulo Futre -- have come up short. It would mean doing it while proudly carrying the underdog label, unlike 2004, his only other appearance in a major tournament final, when Portugal were heavy favorites against Greece.
It won't have much of an impact on the GOAT debate, because opinions are highly fossilized and unlikely to change. But if Ronaldo's team becomes the champions of Europe on Sunday, it will shift the needle in another way. He will have done it without a top-drawer supporting cast, while enduring a finishing slump and donning a hard hat and work boots.
That, for a guy in the GOAT conversation, may well be a first.
Possibly, it may also end up being more satisfying than the solar system of league titles, Champions League trophies and Ballon d'Or honors he has piled up.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.