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EURO 2024: The Last Dance of Cristiano Ronaldo

At EURO 2024, a 39-year-old CR7 will feature at the European Championships for a record sixth time. The Game Magazine columnist Andy Murray investigates what motivates the Portugal captain as he seeks a second continental crown.

Cristiano Ronaldo couldn’t have had a worse World Cup. In the space of a month, he’d had his Manchester United contract terminated by mutual agreement following a spectacularly self-indulgent interview with professional blowhard Piers Morgan, lost his place in Portugal’s starting XI to a 21-year-old (with just one cap before tournament kick-off) and left his record-equalling fifth World Cup in tears following Portugal’s meek 1-0 quarter-final defeat to underdogs Morocco.

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IMAGO / Xinhua / Xiao Yijiu | Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal reacts during the Quarterfinal between Morocco and Portugal of the 2022 FIFA World Cup at Al Thumama Stadium in Doha, Qatar, December 10, 2022.
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IMAGO / PA Images / Adam Davy | A Portugal fan wears a sweatshirt featuring Cristiano Ronaldo and Argentina’s Lionel Messi during the World Cup 2022.

Worse was to follow. Eight days after Ronaldo’s waterworks, Lionel Messi won the one major honour to elude him. While neither of the modern game’s big beasts had a World Cup on their respective CVs, acolytes of both could claim pre-eminence over the other. Now, however, there was no doubt. As Messi held trophy he coveted most to the early-morning Lusail air – a picture that remains the most-liked on Instagram – Ronaldo would have to accept for the first time that another’s primacy.

Or would he? Part of CR7’s sustained brilliance is his total certainty in his own magnificence and the importance of numbers. A couple of weeks after the World Cup final, Ronaldo joined Saudi Arabia’s side Al Nassr on an eye-watering contract worth €200m a season, a world record salary he has often been at pains to point out. Going into Euro 2024 this summer, he had won more caps (206) and scored more goals (128) than any other player in international football history.

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IMAGO / MB Media Solutions | Cristiano Ronaldo is officially unveiled as an Al Nassr player at Mrsool Park Stadium in the Saudi capital Riyadh on January 3, 2023.

Now 39 and increasingly restricted by his advancing football mortality, Ronaldo’s pure goalscoring prowess means he will appear at a record sixth European Championships this summer with a realistic shot at adding to the title he memorably won as Portugal’s captain in 2016. Gone are the days of an out-to-in winger capable of single-handedly changing a game, but his late-career blossoming as a penalty box predator is no less effective.

It’s easy to make snide asides at Ronaldo’s planetary-sized ego – guilty as charged, your honour – but it’s arguably his greatest strength. In the same way, you should never argue with an idiot because they’ll beat you with experience, at least according to Mark Twain, Ronaldo can simply never be convinced that he is anything other than the GOAT. In his own mind at least, CR7 is football’s biggest, brightest and most complete star by dint of existing. He believes it so it must be true.

Ronaldo has been relentless in the pursuit of footballing perfection. His dedication to diet – he eats almost exclusively chicken, fish and pasta with no sauce – and physical training mirrors his own singularity on the pitch. Ronaldo has always been direct, almost brutalist, in always picking the path of least resistance to goal, a ruthless methodology that has delivered his 750-plus club goals and that men’s international record. There are parallels with the sporting world’s other great dominant rivalry of the past two decades.
Ronaldo is the Rafael Nadal to Messi’s Roger Federer – the Argentine is the more naturally gifted, whereas Ronaldo’s relentless attention to detail and physical fitness wrings the absolute maximum from an already significant skill set. Like Nadal and Federer, each has pushed the other to ever-greater heights. The result of such dedication to his craft, Ronaldo’s longevity is nothing short of extraordinary.

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IMAGO / ANP | Childhood photo of Cristiano Ronaldo, dated October 1, 1987.

Born in Funchal on the island of Madeira, he had already won 23 caps and reached the Euro 2004 final before Messi had made his Argentina debut, a determination to achieve for his family central to his psyche. Father Dinis was a garden labourer and kitman for local amateurs Andorinha, but struggled with alcoholism following the horrors suffered in fighting in the Mozambique War of Independence. Mother Maria Dolores was a cook who, when she fell pregnant with Cristiano, worried the family couldn’t afford the food to eat and tried to have an abortion, then “drank warm ale and ran until I dropped” to try to force a miscarriage.

Ronaldo always fought. Picked up by Madeiran pro side Nacional when he was 10, he immediately shone against boys five or six years older and within two years moved to Sporting to settle a €25,000 debt owed the Lisbon giants. Frequently mocked for his thick Madeira accent by contemporaries in his new home, he often played truant from school and once threw a chair across his classroom until he was allowed to drop his studies. On the pitch was different.

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IMAGO / ANP | Cristiano Ronaldo (Top row, 5th from left) celebrates as Nacional Funchal is crowned champions of Madeira during an award ceremony on June 1, 1995.

“The 15- and 16-year-olds who’d come from Madeira usually took less than 24 hours to ask to go home. This boy, on his second day here, was treating others almost like they were his employees,” Aureli Pereira later told FourFourTwo. “‘Give me the ball, boy’ he was calling people ‘boy’, as I would do with a kid now. This kind of audacity and fearlessness of a street football, was there.”

It was at Sporting that his obsession for physical improvement became entrenched. Ronaldo despised being called skinny at Sporting, so found a ladder to climb over the roof of a ticket office and into the gym at night and perform a series of exercises with no trainer or instruction. When the club found out, the club forbade the teenage prodigy from a repeat. Instead, he got two buckets and filled them with water to do homemade weightlifting, squats for his legs and press-ups for his arms.

From the moment Ronaldo scored twice on his first Sporting start in a 3-0 win against Moreirense in September 2002, the “modern-day Eusebio” tag given him by the manager that day, Laszlo Boloni, has proven apt. The staggering display of individual dribbling in a pre-season friendly against Manchester United the following summer catapulted the teenager to global acclaim. Sir Alex Ferguson reportedly refused to leave Estadio Jose Alvalade that night without leaving with Ronaldo’s signature on a contract.

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IMAGO / Latinphoto/Amorim | Trainer Sir Alex Ferguson alongside Cristiano Ronaldo during a press conference in Lisbon, reflecting on the Champions League 2007/2008.

It was fitting that Ronaldo’s Portugal debut came as a substitute for Luis Figo, four days after his United debut in August 2003. By 2006, Ronaldo had already eclipsed Luis Figo as his country’s finest player. Figo reached his peak at 28, and Ronaldo was already winning a first Champions League and Ballon d’Or at 23 in 2008. He also became Portugal’s captain that year. “Had I been born with his talent, I wouldn’t have had to work as hard as I did,” Figo smiled at the time.

The pair combined to reach the Euro 2004 final as hosts, but lost to underdogs Greece in the tournament’s biggest upset. “I remember he cried and was kind of desperate,” centre-back Ricardo Carvalho later recalled. “He has huge inner strength and managed to keep trying. And he showed how badly he wanted to win and keep winning. He wanted to win things for his country more than anything. He said: ‘I want to win with Portugal.’”

The closest he got was reaching the semi-finals at the 2006 World Cup and Euro 2012 – memorably declaring at the latter, “If we had two or three Cristiano Ronaldos in the team I would feel more comfortable, but we don’t” – until the stars aligned in 2016. Reunited with Fernando Santos, his coach for that memorable friendly that got him his big break to United, Ronaldo finally came good on his early promise. Though initially profligate, CR7 scored two and made another in a nervy 3-3 draw with Hungary that took A Seleçao into the last 16, a game in which he overtook Figo as Portugal’s most capped player.

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IMAGO / Sebastian Wells | Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates after scoring the goal during the UEFA European Championship 2016 semi-final match against Wales. July 6, 2016.

Another goal and assist followed in the semi-final against Wales, before the final against hosts France. Ronaldo led like never before. Forced from the field after a damaging early tackle to his knee on 25 minutes, the 31-year-old patrolled the technical area alongside Santos, frequently pushing the coach to one side to cajole his team-mates with unremitting zeal as Portugal beat Les Bleus thanks to unheralded centre-forward Eder’s extra-time strike. During the post-game celebrations in the dressing room, Ronaldo got his phone out and scrolled through Instagram, seeing all the pictures of him doing just that alongside Santos. “Look, lads. Look at what I did!”

“You don’t know what this means for the Portuguese people, it’s a huge thing, you know,” Ronaldo later recalled. “Of course, it’s good when you win the Champions League, the league, the Golden Ball, Golden Boot, but when you win something for your country, it’s completely different. The achievement to win something for Portugal is not the same as if you win something with Argentina, with Brazil or Germany. It’s more difficult.” It’s no coincidence Argentina was the first country to be named. 

Yet in the four major tournaments that followed that 2016 Portuguese summer of love, A Seleçao hasn’t made it beyond the last eight. If you needed a reason to explain why Ronaldo is still going in his 40th year, this is it. A Nations League aside (essentially a tournament of glorified friendlies), Ronaldo’s sole trophy for his country came with him absent for the final. He wants his moment and, put simply, he can’t let go. 

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IMAGO / Insidefoto | Portugal celebrates with the trophy at the end of the match against France in the UEFA Euro 2016 Final at Stade de France. Paris, July 10, 2016.
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IMAGO / Shutterstock / Dave Shopland | Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal walks past photographers as he enters the pitch before the Portugal v Uruguay match during the FIFA World Cup 2022. Qatar, November 28, 2022.

Ronaldo took his dropping by Santos at the 2022 World Cup as a personal affront. It didn’t even matter that his direct replacement Goncalo Ramos scored a hat-trick against Switzerland in a 6-1 last 16 shellacking, CR7 was still convinced he’d been wronged. Having once described their relationship as “like father and son”, Santos and Ronaldo haven’t spoken since.

“He is the best in the world but at that moment, it was very difficult for him,” said Santos. “In the second half of 2022, he had six months that were terrible, even from a personal point of view. He wasn’t part of pre-season at United and even when he returned to the squad, he was barely used. But he lacked rhythm. We tried playing him in the games before the World Cup and then in the first games of the tournament to get him into the rhythm. Today, I would make the same decision.”

Luckily for Ronaldo, Santos was sacked almost immediately after Portugal’s exit. The only man to coach A Selecao to a major international trophy received plenty of critics for a dogmatic philosophy, but clashing with Ronaldo can’t have helped his cause. When eventual winners Spain knocked their Iberian neighbours out in the last 16 of the 2010 World Cup, Ronaldo was asked what went wrong. “Ask Queiroz,” came the curt reply from the man who had scored just once that tournament. Queiroz had managed his final Portugal game.

Santos’ successor, Roberto Martinez, has been in pain to keep his captain happy in qualifying for Euro 2024. Ronaldo scored 10 times as Portugal finished with a 100% record from their 10 fixtures for the first time in their history. “Cristiano, first and foremost, is happy,” said the former Belgium boss. “What shocked me was how fresh he is with his approach in football: someone of [then] 38 comes to training and wants to win every exercise, win every race and is the last one leaving.”

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IMAGO / Agencia-MexSport / Jorge Martinez | Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal during the Portugal vs Switzerland match in the round of 16 of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 at Lusail Stadium, Lusail, Doha, on December 6, 2022.

It’s success with his country that seems to be keeping Ronaldo going. CR7 has become increasingly petulant in Al Nassr games, with the expected deluge of trophies in Saudi Arabia yet to happen. Local wags chanting “Messi, Messi” at him have resulted in frequent sarcastic applause back, while in the 2-1 defeat to Al Hilal in the Saudi Super Cup, Ronaldo received a red card for twice elbowing Ali Al-Bulayhi and clenching his first seemingly ready to punch the Saudi international midfielder.

Portugal boss Martinez has indicated that Ronaldo wants to keep playing until he breaks the 250-cap mark. To extend his appearance record that far, Ronaldo would need to keep playing until the 2026 World Cup, by which time he’d be 41. That’s not impossible for a player so obsessed with physical fitness and whose prowess in front of goal shows no sign of dulling – like an ageing heavyweight boxer’s one-punch power, that will be the last of Ronaldo’s myriad gifts to desert him.
Nevertheless, it’s a sizeable ask to see CR7 being anywhere close to his peak in North America in two years’ time.

This summer, as well as becoming the first man to appear at six European Championships, Ronaldo will also extend his tournament records for most finals matches played (25), matches won (12) and goals scored (14). These are staggering measures of statistical excellence delivered over more than two decades. If Ronaldo never scores again, and Erling Haaland also plays to 39, the Norwegian goal bot will need to score 43 goals a season for the next 17 years just to level CR7’s career total.

Euro 2024 may not quite represent Ronaldo’s last dance, but it can’t be long before the lights come on. With Bruno Fernandes, Rafael Leao, Diogo Jota, Bernardo Silva, Joao Felix and Gonçalo Ramos providing a dizzying array of attacking talent in support, CR7 may defy age yet again. He wants his moment. He needs it.

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IMAGO / Cordon Press/Diario AS | Maria Dolores dos Santos Aveiro, mother of Cristiano Ronaldo.
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IMAGO / ANP | Cristiano Ronaldo of Manchester United poses with kids during the Christmas season in 2006/2007.
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IMAGO / Sportimage | Cristiano Ronaldo (Manchester United, center) celebrates the 2008–09 Premier League.
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IMAGO / Sportimage | Cristiano Ronaldo is the world’s best footballer in 2008 with the Golden Ball.
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IMAGO / Newscom World | Cristiano Ronaldo of Manchester United during the first half of the Premier League, the match between Wigan Athletic and Manchester United on May 13, 2009.
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IMAGO / Marca / Miguel Ángel Polo | Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates after scoring the winning goal match between UD Levante and Real Madrid, May 10, 2013.
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IMAGO / Newscom World | Cristiano Ronaldo, 2009.
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IMAGO / Shutterstock / Steven Paston / BPI | Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid scores his side’s second goal during the UEFA Champions League, Quarter-Final First Leg match against Juventus at Juventus Stadium, Turin, Italy, on April 3, 2018.

The credit of cover photo: IMAGO / Gribaudi/ ImagePhoto

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Andy Murray is an award-winning sports writer and columnist. A fluent Spanish speaker and former semi-professional footballer, he was a senior staff writer of world-leading football magazine FourFourTwo for seven years and continues to write and edit for them, national newspapers, websites and Premier League clubs. He is not a famous tennis player.