Should Cristiano Ronaldo start for Portugal at Euro 2024?

Just how good was Cristiano Ronaldo’s 2023-24 season? It was “one of the best” in the five-time Ballon d’Or winner’s 22-year professional career according to — you guessed it — Cristiano Ronaldo. That’s really saying something for one of the greatest goal scorers the game has ever seen — no one has scored more for Real Madrid or in men’s internationals, ever — but the 39-year-old will point to his 35 goals in 31 Saudi Pro League games for Al Nassr to back up his claim.

But be honest: how much have you seen of Ronaldo since he left Manchester United and joined Al Nassr 18 months ago? You might have watched the viral clips: Ronaldo being taunted with chants of “Messi” after losing the Riyadh derby, Ronaldo seemingly making obscene gestures — twice! — to rival supporters, or Ronaldo crying after losing the 2024 Saudi Kings Cup final.

But do you have a clear idea of whether Ronaldo is ready to lead the line for Portugal this month, at a record sixth European Championship? He ended his last major tournament, the 2022 World Cup, as a frustrated substitute as Portugal crashed out in the quarterfinals.

How much has Ronaldo’s game — and physical condition — evolved, or deteriorated, since then? Is it possible to be both Euro 2024’s biggest name, and its biggest unknown quantity?

Portugal’s squad for Euro 2024 is packed with talent, which begs the question: Should Ronaldo even start?

Coach Roberto Martínez has some big calls to make ahead of Group F games with Czechia, Turkey and Georgia. Martínez — the former Belgium coach known for free-flowing attacking football who replaced the conservative Fernando Santos in January 2023 — could start AC Milan’s Rafael Leão in attack. He might use Liverpool’s Diogo Jota and Manchester City’s Bernardo Silva. He may consider picking Paris Saint-Germain’s Gonçalo Ramos, the unpredictable João Félix — most recently on loan at Barcelona — or even Wolves’ flying winger, Pedro Neto.

Some doubts were dispelled by his showing in Portugal’s last pre-tournament friendly, a 3-0 win over the Republic of Ireland in Aveiro on June 11. Martínez picked Ronaldo as part of a front two alongside Leão, with Félix and Bruno Fernandes operating behind them. In the 50th minute, Ronaldo received a pass from Rúben Neves, cut infield with a step-over and unleashed an unstoppable shot into the far corner. It was vintage Ronaldo, a goal he could have scored at any time in the past 20 years. Ten minutes later, he scored again, finishing first time from close to the penalty spot.

On this limited evidence, Ronaldo is still Ronaldo. For a bigger picture, check out his goals for Al Nassr this season.

“He’s slow, but he can still use his experience,” a player who has played with Ronaldo in the Saudi Pro League told ESPN. “If you keep him in the box, he can score goals. He’ll have that instinct forever.”

The campaign might have been a trophyless disappointment — Al Nassr finished second in the Pro League, 14 points behind champions Al Hilal, and missed out on the Asian Champions League, Super Cup and Kings Cup — but Ronaldo still delivered by setting a new Saudi record for goals in a season.

Watching those goals, many of the qualities that made Ronaldo the planet’s most relentless goal scorer for at least a decade are instantly recognisable. There’s his powerful shot, his deceptively clever movement inside the box, and his willingness to shoot from anywhere, with unerring accuracy. Overall, 28 of those 35 goals (including penalties) were scored from inside the box. Of the other seven, three were trademark Ronaldo free kicks, and four from distance during open play. Looking at it more closely, it seems that late-stage Ronaldo’s evolution into a penalty-box predator is almost complete.

The same player also praised Ronaldo’s attitude behind closed doors, his unexpectedly down-to-earth treatment of teammates, and his single-minded dedication. “He can play as long as he wants to, because he looks after himself like nobody else does,” they said.

Ronaldo has spent 20 years breaking records with Portugal, many of them at European Championships. Since making his tournament debut at Euro 2004, he has broken the records for most games at the competition (25) and most goals (14). He is the only player to score at five consecutive Euros.

His record in qualifying is equally impressive. No player can match his 41 goals in Euro qualifiers. Ahead of Euro 2024, he scored 10 goals in nine qualifying games as Portugal topped Group J ahead of Slovakia, Luxembourg, Iceland, Bosnia and Liechtenstein. Only Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku (14) scored more goals in qualifying.

On the road to Germany, we got more signs of Ronaldo’s development. He remains a key player for Portugal, with only Fernandes starting more qualifying games (10, to Ronaldo’s nine), but he was involved far less in the team’s build-up play than many other teammates. Throughout the campaign, 10 players had more touches than Ronaldo’s 332 and 11 players (an entire team’s worth) completed more carries — when a player dribbles the ball from one place to another — than him.

Ronaldo only crossed the ball three times in nine qualifying appearances, and he didn’t play a single through-ball. But he had by far the most shots, 46. That’s 24 more than the next Portugal player, Fernandes.



Dalot: Cristiano Ronaldo always thinks big

Diogo Dalot says Portugal are taking on Cristiano Ronaldo’s challenge to “think big” ahead of their opening Euro 2024 fixture.

“For me, he’s still really important for the national team,” Afonso de Melo, a journalist who was Portugal’s press officer at Euro 2004 — the year hosts Portugal lost to Greece in the final — and the 2006 World Cup, told ESPN. “We saw that in the last game [against Ireland] with two goals, typical of Ronaldo.

“In my opinion, he has to play as a No. 9. He can’t be a player who runs 30 or 40 metres. He doesn’t have the speed. But he can make the difference as a centre-forward. Keep him in the box as much as possible.”

Portugal are rated by many as being among the favourites to win Euro 2024, along with France, hosts Germany and England. Melo disagrees.

“We have to be realistic,” he told ESPN. “I don’t think Portugal are among the strongest teams in Europe. I think the best [Portugal teams] were in 2004, 2006, with Luís Figo, Rui Costa, Simão … and a young Ronaldo. But what [coach Roberto] Martínez can do is make sure the main players are in the right positions.

“Pepê is the boss in defence, with Ronaldo at centre-forward. After that we have two or three players who can do things, like Bruno Fernandes, Bernardo Silva. If [Ronaldo] plays as a No. 9, if he plays as he did against Ireland, he will make the difference, because he’s still a great goal scorer. He’s the only really great finisher in the team.”

Martínez, an adept man-manager, has been consistent in his praise for Ronaldo, calling him “unique” for what he brings to the team.

“There is no other player in world football who can bring what Cristiano can bring to the locker room,” Martínez said earlier this month. “It’s going to be his sixth European Championship … We are talking about a unique feat in world football, and this experience is important. After that, we have other players on the field, and decisions to make. Cristiano is ready to help.”

It seems likely that this will be Ronaldo’s last major international tournament; however, given his ferocious, career-long desire to prove doubters and critics wrong, you wouldn’t bet against him turning up at the 2026 World Cup in the United States either.

“I know I don’t have many years of football left,” Ronaldo said last week, speaking from Portugal’s training camp. “It’s a gift to play year after year. I’m 39, and every year is about enjoying [myself]… The national team is the love of my life. Winning the Euros would be a dream.

“Playing in 2004, when I made my [European Championship] debut, or playing today, the feeling is always of pride and passion. It doesn’t get any better than this. The most important thing is that I am well physically and psychologically. I am 100% professional. I will be ready as always to help our country [at the Euros] and respect the coach’s decisions.”

The next chapter will begin on Tuesday, June 18 in Portugal’s opening game against Czechia, when the highest goal-scorer in European Championship history — a player who reached the final in his first Euros, and won the tournament in a career high in 2016 — will have another opportunity to add to his goal tally.

Additional reporting by Rodrigo Faez

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