The Juventus superstar, 36, added a double in Budapest to move clear of Michel Platini as the leading scorer in men’s European Championships with 11 goals
All it took was five minutes. The tensed arms, red rum face and bloodshot eyes. Cristiano Ronaldo had arrived, and he wanted it.
Specifically, a pass from Diogo Jota. The winger had broken the Hungarian backline, miscontrolled but recalibrated his bearings to take the match’s first shot on target. Peter Gulacsi had to spring to keep it out. But Cristiano was there, free and desperate. He’s always there.
And seemingly always here. A fifth appearance in the European Championships, a ninth major tournament, he is now clear as the leading men’s goalscorer at this tournament with 11, not to mention three goals behind Iran’s Ali Daei (109) as the all-time men’s international top scorer.
He’ll tick off double figures with the Qatar World Cup next year, and though he will be 39 when the next Euros come around, committing any prospective endpoint of this phenomenon to paper feels a bit like reciting Candyman into a mirror.
It certainly did not feel like that precarious before the tournament got underway. The evolution of this Portugal side in the last five years has been like seeing the collection of the Infinity stones. Of the six that started the 2016 final against France and Tuesday’s opener in Budapest, five were the designated roadblocks.
The change had come at the front end: Bruno Fernandes, Bernardo Silva, and Diogo Jota giving this XI an attacking gravitas that spilt over to the bench where recent La Liga winner and now-big-thing Joao Felix bided his time.
So, well, some awkward thoughts were being had. No conversations, per se. Not publicly or anywhere within earshot of the man in question.
Nevertheless, Cristiano Ronaldo’s time as the totem felt like it was coming to a natural conclusion. And as we’ve seen over the last year, there’s no dignified way to ease out an idol other than to pull it down.
Even the demigods of this game get no guarantees. Just like us, when their time is up – that’s it.
The signs pointed that way, though, you had to squint: 11 goals in the qualifiers, 40 in the regular season for club and country. Those don’t exactly read like the last knockings. But the disarray at Juventus, the disillusionment of finishing fourth in a league he only joined to complete his Big League bingo, the feeling he was losing his sense of self after moving on from Real Madrid.
Never before has he entertained these kinds of ideological misgivings. And with the deeply unsettling rape allegations hovering around his name, footballing greatness, however well-earned, were unquestionably tainted.
The case to answer around this alleged assault will not go away. But the privilege of sport is it affords an outlet to rebuff. So it would come to pass, after Raphaël Guerreiro finally broke Hungarian hearts on 84 minutes, that Ronaldo sent out a few reminders.
Even before his brace, there were trademark flashes. The feet still possess that devastating twirl, like razor wire flourished by the hand of a rhythmic gymnast. The burst of acceleration to peel off the last man, though not as potent, is still effective. The appreciation of space evident in the unaccompanied dart towards the front of the six-yard box. All seen during a first half watched first-hand by 61,000 who probably should not have been there all at once.
None of those came off, by the way. The step-over routine and no-look-flick dismount on the edge of the Hungary box was to a shadow of a teammate who got bored and ventured elsewhere. The burst was mistimed and comfortably offside. The pinged cross from Fernandes diverted over the bar from just six yards out. Reminders that time makes even the seemingly perfect imperfect.
However, the end of a game was word to the wise that perfection of sorts remains. The penalty – all stride, no hop – was sent deep into the bottom right corner as the goalkeeper with Gulacsi fooled into the bottom left. The second a majestic engineering of snap and pop: exchanging a brace of one-twos with Rafa before rounding Gulacsi within the square-footage of a phone box.
With athletes of Ronaldo’s ilk, once we realise how good they are, we fall over ourselves to attach meaning to occasions they have yet to enter. Much of that is down to what we’ve learned of similar occasions in their back catalogue. And Ronaldo’s is deep.
But we are suckers for the origin story, and to chart back to that first tournament in 2004 gives us the moment the behemoth awoke. The summer he left Old Trafford after his first season as an elfish prince of Manchester United and returned the Atlas of a man capable of carrying his globe-shaped destiny. Those tears and that wink slowly became smudges emphatically rubbed away by nearly two decades of singly paralleled brilliance.
And so, there was a sense we were on something of a farewell tour. Not exclusively with this European Championship, but in what we had left of these final years of the Cristiano Ronaldo epic. This stanza of his career merely an extension of the fable of the animals mocking the lion on his way out.
Each goal, each season, each everything a reminder of the unrealistically high standards he wouldn’t quite grace again. Moments to remind us that he was that Cristiano Ronaldo once.
On Tuesday, though, perhaps we all realised that Cristiano Ronaldo is still here. And though Portugal might need him less, they – and let’s face it, us – have never yearned for him more.