Cristiano Ronaldo might not be the best player in the world, but he's certainly the best player participating in Euro 2012. The Real Madrid star fired Los Blancos to the top of La Liga in the 2011/12 season, knocking Xavi's Barcelona off their lofty pedestal. He'll be hoping to do the same to Iberian rivals Spain -- eventually. First he has to get Portugal out of the competition's Group Of Death.
And make no mistake, if Portugal can advance past (with all due respect to Denmark) Germany and the Netherlands, it will be because Ronaldo put them on his back and took them there. He's the star man in a group that simply doesn't have a lot of anything else. Who else is going to do anything on that team? Nani? Fabio Coentrao? It's not exactly an inspiring list.
Ronaldo's numbers, however, are inspirational. His 60 goals in fifty five appearances for Real Madrid last season are nothing short of incredible, and it's clear that he's the only player who can seriously challenge Lionel Messi for the title of best in the world. He's the only reason Portugal are in with a prayer.
It's been almost 10 years since an 18-year-old Ronaldo signed with Manchester United from Sporting. The youngster cost United a €12M. Six years later, he was off to Real Madrid. For €80M. In between, he turned from a prospect with all the potential in the world into a genuine superstar. His final two seasons in England saw him net 68 goals in 102 games.
Little did we know that more was to come from Ronaldo. Since arriving at the Santiago Bernabeu, he's scored at an absolutely astonishing clip -- 1.01 goals per game over three full seasons of La Liga and Champions League football. And he continues to get better, too. Ronaldo, so often sneered at for his cultivated good looks and almost brash self-confidence, is a notoriously hard worker fully capable of putting in a shift defensively as well as spearheading attacks. Every single weakness of his game has been eroded away to leave nothing but the glistening handsomeness of a complete footballer.
(He's very attractive. Have we mentioned that?)
Ronaldo has yet to really make an impact on the international stage, presumably because Portugal aren't actually a very good footballing side. The fact that they're regarded as one could be seen as at least somewhat driven by their superstar's dazzling abilities, but even Ronaldo needs some help to get things done, and that hasn't happened for years.
There's every reason to think that Portugal will be a disappointment in Euro 2012, but none of that will be Ronaldo's fault. He's a much more well-rounded player than arch-nemesis Lionel Messi, excellent or better at every aspect of the game you care to measure (although lagging far behind his rival in terms of Messi's Olympian abilities in vision and dribbling). He's excelled at far higher levels of football than the European Championship finals, and if Portugal fall it's much more likely to be because they have Raul Meireles playing in the midfield than because their best player underperformed.
But unless Ronaldo finds yet another hitherto undiscovered gear and propels Portugal past one of the big names in the group, that's exactly the narrative we'll find ourselves following. "Cristiano Ronaldo fails his country once more." And then we'll do it all again in two year cycles, for as long as it takes his country to produce some other half-competent players.
National Team: Portugal
Club Team: Real Madrid
Position: Left winger
Role in the Team: Left forward in 4-3-3, keystone of Portugal's attack. Also a convenient scapegoat.