Belfast Telegraph

Portugal v France Euro 2016 final: The game's greatest icon hobbles off on a night of moth and legends

By Jack Pitt-Brooke

To see Cristiano Ronaldo unable to run, unable to play and reduced to tears of frustration was to see an inversion of everything the football world expects from one of its greatest ever players. We are not used to seeing things go wrong for Ronaldo.

Ronaldo never gets injured. He almost always wins and, when he does not, he still tends to score. He has an aura of physical perfection and power about him. He is always stronger, quicker and sharper than his opponents. And yet last night, on the biggest night of his life, all of that was reduced to pieces.

This was meant to the final in which Ronaldo leaped to a new level of football greatness, by winning a major trophy with an average side, an achievement even more unlikely than any of his club or individual medals. But instead this was a match not marked by Ronaldo's presence but by his absence, a final in which the central event was a bad tackle in the middle of the pitch which was not even punished by Mark Clattenburg. The next hour, at least, felt like coming to terms with Ronaldo's tragic departure.

Although he limped on for another futile quarter of an hour , Ronaldo's effective participation in this final only last eight short minutes. He started the game steadily. This was always going to be a match that Portugal would try to drag out, slow down, stay in for as long as possible, until Ronaldo could decided it. They were not in a rush.

But when Ronaldo held up the ball out on the right, just inside the French half, all those plans were shattered. Dimitri Payet is not exactly known for his defensive diligence but he wanted to make an early impression on the game. In the opening minute Payet had been tackled by Nani, even more of a stranger to getting his hands dirty, and did not want to feel left out.

So Payet ran straight into Ronaldo. His left foot got something on the ball, but the rest of him clattered into the man.

Ronaldo went down in pain and the Portuguese medical staff ran on. What followed were just over 15 minutes of play which were genuinely difficult to watch. Ronaldo clearly was not fit to continue. His knee simply would not do its job. But this was the biggest game of his life and he could not bare to leave the field.

For 10 minutes Ronaldo struggled bravely on, limping heavily, barely able to jump, incapable of any speed beyond an uneven jog. Given Ronaldo's reliance on explosive physical power, he was utterly diminished. Ronaldo went down again, in floods of tears, knowing that he was in trouble. The medical staff were desperate to keep him on, though, so dragged himself off the pitch for treatment. His left knee was heavily strapped, hoping to support the joint enough to make it usable. This was the last chance, but when Ronaldo received the ball in the centre circle, tried to turn and break forward, it was clear the game was up.

Fernando Santos sent Ricardo Quaresma off to warm up and Ronaldo collapsed in the middle of the pitch in tears. He threw his captain's armband to the ground before realising how important it was, picking it up, and bestowing it on Nani. Ronaldo was inconsolable and, almost mocked by the presence of a moth which had landed on his face, looked broken by the premature death of all of his dreams.

As much as the France fans had enjoyed jeering Ronaldo's touches, and even his initial injury, they rose in unison to applaud him as he was taken off. It was impossible not to feel sympathy for a player who has worked so hard to drag him and his team-mates into the game of their lives, only to have it ended by an opponent's reckless bad play.

Because Ronaldo is more than just the captain, talisman and star of this Portugal team. He is a father figure to many of these younger players and feels an immense sense of responsibility to them. That has been apparent the whole tournament, down to his decision to take the first tone-setting penalty in the shoot-out against Poland, rather than the grand-standing fifth.

While the old Ronaldo, the Ronaldo of previous Portugal teams and coaches, treated his less talented team-mates as an obstacle to his own success, this Ronaldo wants to drag them up to his level. Two minutes into this final, Ronaldo played a short pass to William Carvalho who turned, looked up, and nervously skewed the ball out of play. There was no raised arms from Ronaldo, no raised voices, just a gesture of encouragement and a hope for better next time.

The tragedy for Ronaldo is that there was no next time. Minutes later he was cut down by Payet and his final was over. 12 years ago he was in tears too at this stage, but he was a 19-year-old which the promise of a great career ahead of him. Much of that career has been and gone now, and the chance of another night like this is very slim.

Which is why it hurt so much.

Belfast Telegraph