Published On: Sat, Jun 16th, 2018

Ronaldo's individual brilliance still lights Portugal's path, for better or worse

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It’s hard to believe there were 10 other players on the pitch against Spain.

No disrespect to the rest of Portugal‘s World Cup squad, but any hopes that a new, dynamic cast including forwards Goncalo Guedes, Andre Silva, and Gelson Martins, or midfield stars like Bruno Fernandes and Bernardo Silva, could share the country’s spotlight with Cristiano Ronaldo were dashed Friday, at the precise second his 88th-minute free-kick froze David de Gea and stung the back of La Furia Roja’s goal.

In his 151st international cap for his country, the five-time Ballon d’Or winner reminded everyone that Portugal’s path to glory depends on one man.

Related – Instant classic: Ronaldo’s hat-trick sees Portugal snatch draw with Spain

That runs entirely contrary to what opposing coaches and players have tried, fruitlessly, to convince us of for months.

While Mexico prepared for its Confederations Cup tilt against the Portuguese last summer, El Tri’s goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa said, courtesy of ESPN’s Tom Marshall: “It’s Portugal, not just Cristiano.” At the World Cup draw in December, now-former Spain boss Julen Lopetegui attempted to warn that Portugal “was something other than just Cristiano,” courtesy of Yahoo Sports.

But fast forward to today, and it’s as evident as ever Ronaldo is Portugal.

That isn’t the end of the world, given he’s now established a proven track record everywhere he goes regardless of the shirt on his back. The concern for Portugal fans, however, is how much longer one of the game’s most dominating players can truly stay at his peak.

Already 33, Ronaldo won’t be around forever. And though he’s promised in the past to continue his career into his 40s, there’s a looming sense in the minds of Portuguese fans that the man who took over the captain’s armband from fellow icon Luis Figo could be taking part in not just his final World Cup, but his final major international tournament altogether.

Fans of the Selecao have clamoured for someone else to help share the load, to ease the eventual transition, yet Ronaldo continues to do it all alone in the meantime.

Friday’s chaotic 3-3 draw evoked strong shades of Portugal’s group-stage match against Hungary at Euro 2016, when the native of the minuscule island of Madeira refused to let his country’s tournament end early and scored two emphatic second-half goals. Ronaldo continued to draw upon that defiance as he stiff-armed Portugal to the final, where an injury forced his teammates to finally figure things out on their own.

But the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Related – By the numbers: Ronaldo rewrites record book with epic performance

It doesn’t matter with whom Fernando Santos surrounds his talisman. No one else among Portugal’s population of 10.3 million can willingly carry the team in the same ostentatious manner as the chiseled forward. After a disastrous opening four minutes, Fernando Hierro’s men slowly became acclimatised to the match, and a Diego Costa strike in both halves began to inflate La Furia Roja’s confidence – only for Ronaldo to twice stick a pin in Spain’s balloon.

While being a thorn in the side of his Real Madrid teammates could be enough motivation on its own, there may have been a more personal grudge behind one of Ronaldo’s greatest-ever displays for his country.

Hours before the Group B showdown, the Portuguese star reportedly accepted a suspended two-year prison sentence as well as a massive €18.8-million fine from the Spanish government for tax evasion. In response, he tallied a hat-trick against the country that punished him, cementing himself as the oldest player to ever score a hat-trick at the World Cup and the first to ever do it against Spain at the quadrennial tournament.

The fear of how Portugal can continue when Ronaldo cannot is real, and one that will have to be dealt with when the time comes.

Until then?

Enjoy the one-man show.

(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)

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