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Ronaldo still Portugal's main man despite slow start to UEFA Euro 2024


DORTMUND, Germany (AP) — Cristiano Ronaldo has been a showstopper, as expected, at the European Championship.

Just not necessarily in the way he’d like to be.

The Portugal superstar with 632 million followers on Instagram and a never-ending stream of endorsement deals has had to deal with a raft of on-field selfie-seekers, during matches and in training. One presumed super-fan even leapt from the stands over the players’ tunnel toward a startled-looking Ronaldo as he headed to the locker room after Portugal’s match against Georgia.

He’s raged at a referee (earning a yellow card), booted away a water bottle, and angrily remonstrated in the dugout. He’s also had 12 shots, more than anyone else at Euro 2024.

What Ronaldo hasn’t done is score — and that’s the currency he deals in, at least in soccer.

OK, there was that moment he passed up a golden chance to score by passing unselfishly to Bruno Fernandes for Portugal’s third goal in the 3-0 win over Turkey. A double-stepover that befuddled Abdulkerim Bardakci and left the Turkey center back on his back has proved a hit on social media and gave the world a reminder of the Ronaldo of 10, 15, even 20 years ago.

Ronaldo, though, is 39 now. Those big moments have become fleeting, especially when it comes to the big tournaments and when he’s playing against top-level defenses.

Make that seven straight matches in which he has failed to score at a major tournament, covering the 2022 World Cup and Euro 2024. For the first time in his 21-year international career taking in five World Cups and six European Championships, he has ended a group stage without a goal.

So, with the powers of this undoubted soccer great on the wane, the question will again be asked heading into the knockout stage: Will the constant drama surrounding Ronaldo wind up being a distraction for Portugal in its bid for another big soccer title, eight years after winning its only one at Euro 2016?

Roberto Martinez clearly doesn’t think so.

The Portugal coach is in thrall with Ronaldo, as shown by his reaction to the striker’s assist — his record-tying eighth at the European Championship — against Turkey.

“It should be shown in every academy in Portugal and world football,” Martinez said, purring at this “spectacular” piece of play.

A day earlier, he’d got into an exchange with a journalist who questioned whether Ronaldo could handle the intensity of a major tournament at age 39.

“All you need to do is look at what he has done in the last 12 months,” Martinez proffered, pointing to his record in the Saudi league with Al-Nassr, for whom he started 31 of 34 games and scored a league-high 35 goals, and his 10 goals in Euro 2024 qualifying — second only to Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku.

Before the tournament, Martinez lauded Ronaldo by saying he “approaches every day as a new way to be the best” and his stats “are better than anything, subjectively, that you can say.”

Maybe to justify his arguments — or who knows, to keep in Ronaldo’s good books — Martinez started the striker against Georgia despite resting all of his other key outfield players for a game that meant little for Portugal, which had already qualified as group winner.

It was at this stage at the last World Cup where Ronaldo lost his place in Portugal’s team, to the shock and anger of his millions of fans who might not see him play as much these days because of his move to the Middle East. He started all three of the group games, scoring only a penalty, and reacted poorly to being substituted by then-coach Fernando Santos against South Korea in the third.

Ronaldo didn’t start the 6-1 win over Switzerland in the round of 16 — his replacement, Goncalo Ramos scored a hat trick — nor the quarterfinal loss to Morocco, after which he left the field in tears.

Given his public comments, it's unlikely Martinez will follow Santos’ path and drop his captain in the knockout stage, starting against Slovenia on Monday, for what may prove to be Ronaldo's last matches at a major tournament.

Nor do his teammates, who have grown up idolizing Ronaldo, want that to happen.

“We want to be side by side with our captain," Portugal defender Diogo Dalot said, while midfielder Vitinha has spoken of the "privilege to be able to share moments with him on and off the pitch."

Ronaldo’s desire and passion clearly remains. He is still a prolific scorer, albeit mostly against weak opposition these days, even if his mobility and, in particular, his pressing isn't at the level of a top-notch striker. It would be no surprise to see the top scorer in men’s international soccer — with 130 goals — get off the mark against Slovenia.

Whether his continued selection is beneficial for Portugal is another thing entirely.


AP Euro 2024: