After a season in which his Real Madrid finally toppled Lionel Messi’s Barcelona and in a summer where his nemesis had only a friendly stage, against Brazil, on which to perform, Cristiano Ronaldo now has a European Championship semi-final. To make it more perfect, said semifinal is against Spain. With the stage to himself (though Andres Iniesta, Andrea Pirlo or Mesut Ozil might still have their say), Ronaldo has the chance to make this tournament his own and thereby change the terms of the long-running debate between himself and the little Argentine.
Potentially, CR7 is two matches away from doubling the length of the list of players to have won an international tournament on their own: to Maradona, ‘86, add Ronaldo, ’12. If it were to happen, and there are many reasons to doubt it, Ronaldo would - for some - transcend from the comparative to the superlative, from the temporal to the eternal: no longer ‘greater now’, but ‘greatest ever’. And, you sense, he's one of those who sees it that way.
No player is more conscious of his legacy than Ronaldo. Whereas Messi embodies the ‘he’d-play-for-free’ archetype, Ronaldo seems to need the adulation. Against the Czech Republic, in the quarter final, Ronaldo dipped a free-kick wide off Petr Cech’s post and raised four fingers. ‘Four times’, said BBC commentator Jonathan Pearce right on cue, ‘Ronaldo has hit the woodwork in this tournament’. ‘I remember in the last game I hit the post twice, too’, said the Portugal captain after the match: telling us to count, and telling us that he’s counting; I’m watching you watch me.
Such self-involvement (count the Is) is annoying but it is probably necessary for the type of greatness long craved by Ronaldo, greatness that could, maybe, finally lie within his grasp. Contained within that sentence is the whole difference between Messi and Ronaldo. Whereas the Argentine is simply the perfect product of a collective ideal, Ronaldo is the simple perfection of self. Messi’s ‘we’ vs. Ronaldo’s ‘I’; the iconoclast against the icon.
Which is why this evening’s clash is so perfectly poised. As Graham MacAree wrote here during the week, international football is hard. As an assemblage of individuals from fundamentally different collectives, international sides tend to lack cohesion. Add the lack of time that managers have to assimilate distinct players into a coherent whole and roughly three types of side tend to emerge: the staunchly defensive (Two Banks Of Four/England); the broken (Beauties+Beasts/Holland); the ‘club side’ (Barcelona/Spain, Bayern Munich/Germany or Juventus/Italy).
Of these three, rough, types the latter is the more successful, as the makeup of the quarter finals indicates. This makes sense, given the extent to which the importing of already mutually familiar players mitigates the negative effects of the lack of time. The fourth quarter-finalist, however, is different. Because of Ronaldo, Portugal don’t really conform to any of those types. They are broadly defensive, but also, lacking midfield creativity (and a striker), somewhat broken. Think of Italy, Spain or Germany and you think of a smoothly carouselling midfield (with perhaps Xavi, Pirlo or Schweinsteiger instigating) pivoting calmness and elegance onto a swiftly oscillating forward line. Think of Portugal and you think of Ronaldo.
Their captain, the I in their equipe, is a one-man tactical approach. In a way that Messi, tiki-taka’s cold heart, never could, Ronaldo is able to possess games. He has done it, as his ‘I hit the post so often’ sob story implies, twice in this tournament already to carry slow-starting Portugal into the last four. Do it against Spain and he will have trumped collectivity with individuality. Do it once more, and he will have possessed an entire tournament, transformed a collective effort into an individual achievement and established himself as, if not greater than, then, perhaps, the greatest.