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Cristiano Ronaldo back in the global spotlight at Euro 2024 and out to show he’s still a force

Cristiano Ronaldo had tears in his eyes as he walked off the field and seemingly into international retirement.

It was the 2022 World Cup and Portugal had just lost to Morocco in the quarterfinals, a shocking result that left Ronaldo inconsolable.

He was nearly 38 years old. Unarguably past his best. No longer a guaranteed starter for his country.

Was this the last time the soccer world would see Ronaldo — one of the game’s greatest-ever players — in a Portugal jersey?

We really shouldn’t have underestimated him.

Eighteen months later, Ronaldo is still scoring hat tricks, still breaking records, still owning that will to win and self-belief — not to mention the toned physique — which has long set him apart from pretty much anyone else.

And still a key member of the Portugal team heading to the European Championship in Germany as one of the tournament favorites.

Indeed, Portugal coach Roberto Martinez, who was hired weeks after the World Cup, has retained the 39-year-old Ronaldo as captain.

“For us, he brings that experience,” Martinez said, “but, more than anything, probably the biggest surprise is that he approaches every day as a new way to be the best, a new way to keep impressing.”

The Euros represent an opportunity for Ronaldo to remind soccer fans that he is still a force in the game.

Since the start of 2023, he has been playing in Saudi Arabia, pretty much out of the global spotlight and in a league that has thrown money at some high-profile — if maybe over-the-hill — superstars to generate attention and change the impression of soccer in the kingdom.

Ronaldo, earning a reported $200 million a year, is still pouring in the goals — he was the top scorer in the Saudi Pro League with 35, a record in that division — even if critics have been quick to point out the low standard of play in the country.

“We don’t make choices based on where the players play,” said Martinez, who could not be more impressed with what Ronaldo has been doing in Saudi.

“He has become a central figure of a new project and the important thing for us, as a national team coach, is that he has been able to carry on scoring goals,” Martinez said.

“His stats are better than anything, subjectively, that you can say. He’s been the top goal scorer in 2023 in world football and he makes a total new beginning in a league that in the next few years is going to be talked about a lot.”

Ronaldo committed himself to Portugal even though it looked like his time with the national team was up after being benched for its knockout-stage games at the World Cup.

However, Portugal changed coaches — Martinez came in for Fernando Santos — and Ronaldo felt he still had plenty more to offer, not least adding to his world record of goals scored in men’s internationals that now stands at 128.

In a qualifying group for the Euros that didn’t feature any of Portugal’s top rivals, Ronaldo started nine of the 10 games and scored 10 goals — only behind Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku (14). He was captain whenever he started.

In short, Martinez fully believes in Ronaldo, a player he describes as “an iconic figure of the game,” heading into what will be the striker’s record-extending sixth European Championship and 11th major tournament.

“He keeps making the difference,” Martinez said, “and I think that, for us, this is a wonderful example for young players.”

Key is whether Ronaldo will be trusted — and he has the all-round fitness and sharpness — for the biggest games. He wasn’t in Qatar, after all.

Portugal has been drawn in a benign group on paper, also featuring Turkey, the Czech Republic and tournament debutant Georgia. But, what if Portugal plays France or the Netherlands in the quarterfinals, as could happen according to the knockout bracket: Does Ronaldo start then?

A big difference to the World Cup is that his backup, Goncalo Ramos, hasn’t been a regular starter at Paris Saint-Germain since his move from Benfica. He isn’t pushing Ronaldo for a starting place as much as he was in Qatar, where he arrived in red-hot form.

Martinez seems willing to forgo some of Ronaldo’s limitations — his inability to press as well as others, for example — because he is still so dangerous in front of goal.

Ronaldo has a long list of exciting midfielders and wingers ready to feed him chances — Bruno Fernandes, Rafael Leao, Diogo Jota, Bernardo Silva, Joao Felix. With holding midfielder Joao Palhinha protecting so well a defense that conceded just two goals in the entire qualifying campaign, there’s so much to like about Portugal’s chances in Germany.

Ronaldo saw his longtime rival, Lionel Messi, grab all the limelight at the World Cup by leading Argentina to the title.

Maybe there’s one more big major tournament left in Ronaldo, too.

Credit: AP

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