It was an escape so gung-ho that you almost expected Cristiano Ronaldo to chomp a cigar through gritted teeth and cackle: “I love it when a plan comes together,” in the manner of George Peppard’s Hannibal in ‘80s adventure series The A-Team.
For a large part of a rain-sodden Friday night at Windsor Park in Belfast, Portugal were a mess, and not for the first time. Losing 2-1 to Northern Ireland and a man down after Helder Postiga’s red card, Paulo Bento’s team was in serious trouble.
Yet what we all know about Ronaldo is that with the merest sniff of blood, he’s a shark. That encouragement came from Chris Brunt’s own send-off, making it 10-a-side, and the Portugal captain pounced, hitting a 15-minute hat-trick to turn things around.
It helped Ronaldo, 28, make a few more dents in the national team’s record books. It was the second-fastest treble in Portugal’s history, and it took Ronaldo onto 43 international goals, above the great Eusebio in second place on Portugal’s all-time list.
So why is he sometimes treated as if he’s a millstone at international level? There is undoubtedly baggage incumbent with Ronaldo’s superstar status. That is something that we were reminded of after the game in Belfast, when he was sneaked out of a side door to avoid waiting journalists (and the team bus) and whisked away in a windowless van.
As his teammates, almost all with top-level club careers of their own, fulfilled their own media obligations, they were all asked about Ronaldo—his performance on the night, his record and what Portugal would do without him. It has become a bit of a travelling circus.
Portugal’s other great players are just that. Joao Moutinho may be one of Europe’s best midfielders, but is recognised as so only by the connoisseur. The AS Monaco transfer is not a household name in the wider sense; his biggest brush with off-pitch fame was a televised cook-off with then-teammate Silvestre Varela on a local channel in Porto.
Nobody can deny Ronaldo’s contributions. “We have to congratulate him for everything he's done for our country and to help,” Moutinho said after the match, as reported by ESPN FC.
Ronaldo's commitment has always been unquestionable. From the moment he sobbed inconsolably on the Estadio da Luz pitch as a teenager after Portugal lost the Euro 2004 final to Greece, to the June night eight years later in Kharkiv, where he put the Netherlands to the sword single-handedly in group stage, he has always given his all.
If his numbers for Portugal don’t quite match his Real Madrid ones, there are reasons. His refusal to shirk responsibility has sometimes compromised him, and the team. Former coach Carlos Queiroz’s idea was to create an ultra-defensive team, with Ronaldo at the spearhead to perform pretty much every attacking function. Portugal were dire to watch, and Ronaldo scored just twice in two years under Queiroz.
Bento’s simple plan, using Ronaldo in exactly the same left side and cutting-in position he occupies for Real Madrid, has got a lot more out of him. It's tried to limit his role to merely—merely!—reprising his club form. Yet most of his accomplished international teammates often seem unable to rise to the occasion. It’s as if they’re waiting for him to lead the way.
Maybe Ronaldo’s Portugal teammates simply don’t have the same extraordinary desire that’s pushed him all the way to the top. Ronaldo is often a solution for Portugal—that he can’t always be so isn’t his fault. It’s time for his talented teammates to follow his lead and step up.