Forced out of the final of the European Championship against France with a knee injury after 25 minutes, the three-time world player of the year covered his face as he lay on a stretcher. His final was over, and so too, it must have felt, was his dream of a title for Portugal.
Two hours later, he erupted into uncontrolled tears of joy, celebrating his team overcoming the odds to beat France, 1-0, after extra time in the Stade de France to win its first major title.
“This is one of the happiest moments in my career,” Ronaldo said. “. . . For me this is an amazing, unique moment for all Portuguese.”
A superbly taken long-range strike from substitute Eder in the second period of extra time ended French hopes of a third Euro win as Didier Deschamps’s team was left to rue its inability to turn earlier dominance into a goal.
Ronaldo’s early exit could have disheartened lesser-spirited teams, but without the individual threat of its talisman, Portugal found the determination to grind out a victory.
The Portuguese needed a fine performance from goalkeeper Rui Patricio and required a little luck at the end of regulation when French striker Andre-Pierre Gignac hit the post. But Portugal found a way and finally vanquished the bitter memories of its loss to Greece in the final of Euro 2004 in Lisbon.
“It was tough to lose our main man, the man who could at any moment score a goal,” Portugal defender Pepe said. “But we were warriors on the pitch. We said we would win it for him, and we managed to do that.”
Portugal didn’t reach the final with any great style — it finished third in its group, failing to win a game, and it will not go down as one of the great European champions.
But by bringing a top trophy to his nation — a feat that Argentina’s Lionel Messi, his chief rival for the title of greatest of the era has not achieved — Ronaldo certainly has his place in the history of the game secured.
The 31-year-old may have been in discomfort, but as team captain he would not miss the chance to be at the center of the celebrations, limping up to the podium to raise the trophy high to the roars of his teammates and the travelling Portuguese fans.
Ronaldo was effectively out of the game after just eight minutes when France midfielder Dimitri Payet, challenging for a tackle, followed through with his right leg into the forward’s knee, leaving Ronaldo in pain on the ground.
Ronaldo received medical treatment but appeared to have shrugged off the injury, carrying on while France continued its aggressive start with Antoine Griezmann’s looping header bringing a good save out of Patricio.
But Ronaldo was clearly struggling, and after two more spells of treatment, Portugal Coach Fernando Santos reluctantly made the substitution.
The game had lost its biggest star. Ronaldo’s early departure sucked the enthusiasm out of the crowd and the atmosphere, which was festive pregame, then loud and passionate before the injury.
The roar returned briefly in the 33rd minute when France’s Moussa Sissoko produced a sharp turn and fierce diagonal shot that Patricio parried out. But the injury delays had broken up the momentum of France’s earlier attacking dominance.
With France making a stuttering start to the second half, Deschamps brought on speedy 19-year-old Kingsley Coman for Payet, who left the field to predictable booing from the Portuguese supporters.
But for all its possession, France was lacking an edge to its play.
Portugal grew in belief, and France goalkeeper Hugo Lloris was forced into a double-save in the 80th minute when he had to stretch to keep out a looping effort from Nani and then deal with Ricardo Quaresma’s acrobatic reaction to the rebound.
Then in extra time, Gignac turned free of Pepe, and his left-footed shot beat Patricio but struck the post.
Ronaldo reappeared between the extra periods, wearing a bandage around his left knee, to offer encouragement for his teammates.
But the biggest drama came after the restart.
First, Raphael Guerreiro curled a free kick against the crossbar, and then Eder, showing great strength to fend off Laurent Koscielny, charged goalward and hit a long-range shot, earlier than Lloris may have expected, low into the bottom corner.
Eder was the hero, but still it was Ronaldo’s name the Portuguese fans were singing in the closing minutes before a night of celebration began.
For France, it was hard to take.
“It is very cruel,” Deschamps said. “It came down to very fine margins. We struck the post at the end. Losing like that is very tough, but I won’t forget our journey here.”
Source: The Washington post