Still scoring, but less soap opera: Cristiano Ronaldo enters Euro 2024

<span><a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Cristiano Ronaldo;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Cristiano Ronaldo</a> in training in <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Germany;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Germany</a>, with his equally long-serving teammate Pepe behind him.</span><span>Photograph: Patrícia de Melo Moreira/AFP/Getty Images</span>

After all the years of propping up Portugal, there is no more of Cristiano Ronaldo putting the national team on his back. Now, he is well into his victory lap. “Your happiness is our happiness, captain,” was Sport TV’s caption to a reel of his best bits from last week’s 3-0 friendly win over the Republic of Ireland. In previous tournaments, Ronaldo’s every micro-move was replete with nuance, potentially a gamechanger, but there is now less of a daily soap opera feel around the team. “I see quite a calm team, I don’t see anyone anxious,” Ronaldo told reporters on the squad’s arrival at their Euro 2024 base in Germany.

That calm was not extended to Portugal’s first public training session on German soil. For the workout at Gütersloh’s Heidewaldstadion on Friday 8,200 fans turned up, tickets were reputedly changing hands for up to €1,000 (£850) and, inevitably, Ronaldo was hugged and jostled by a series of pitch invaders. Ever since the captain became a bona fide megastar at Manchester United, almost two decades ago, there has been a circus-like aspect to Portugal at major tournaments. Regardless of the residual elite quality of the squad, the periods before, during and after Cristiano will be eras of starkly different shades.

Related: Euro 2024 team guides part 23: Portugal

For the first time, Portugal are allowing themselves to consider the onset of the third stage. The Ronaldo issue looked like being the thorniest inheritance for Roberto Martínez when the head coach took over in January 2023, but, like many aspects of the Spaniard’s smooth-sailing reign so far, the anticipation has been more concerning than the event itself. In some senses the record scorer in men’s international football has been as omnipresent as ever in Portugal’s qualifying campaign, Ronaldo the team’s top scorer with 10 goals as they achieved the 10 wins from 10 games that are a huge feather in Martínez’s cap.

It is a reflection of the coach’s light touch that, having been set up to bring the curtain down on the international career of the most dominant personality in Portuguese football history, Martínez has continued to get good service out of Ronaldo without being committed to cater for his every whim. Days before the tournament, he spoke in a press conference of the huge influence of Ronaldo and Pepe on Portugal, without proclaiming either undroppable. “The strength of a dressing room isn’t in what a coach can say to the players,” Martínez said, “but in those who give a day-to-day example. Cristiano and Pepe are incredible points of reference. They create a very positive atmosphere, and they demand the maximum from other players.”

It is not, however, just about the coach in possession. Martínez really owes his predecessor, Fernando Santos, a case of vinho verde at the very least for taking the plunge first, dropping Ronaldo for a game of significance, as he did for Portugal’s meeting with Switzerland in the last 16 of the 2022 World Cup. That emphatic 6-1 win in Doha – not to mention Gonçalo Ramos’s hat-trick – made evident what many back home had suspected for a while: that the national side could thrive without its most famous product.


The image of how good Portugal were that night – how efficient, how slick, how fast and powerful – is difficult to dispel, and those who regard them as a genuine contenders to lift the trophy in Berlin on 14 July will concede that a Ronaldo-lite dynamic may well be necessary.

That Portugal and Martínez have that option feels like a massive step towards having the flexibility to bring back the title captured in 2016, perhaps even more of an asset than the richly gifted squad that offers them so many more options than they had eight years ago. The language around Ronaldo has subtly changed in recent years. Until relatively recently you could not go near media activity at Portugal’s camp and mention the captain without hearing the words é o melhor do mundo – he’s the best in the world – like a mantra from members of a cult.

That is no longer necessary. Ronaldo is admired, loved, treated with affection, but not leaned upon so hard, as those around him take their turns to bear the weight. You could say this is broadly Bruno Fernandes’s team but Bernardo Silva will have his moments to lead as will Rafael Leão, Rúben Dias and Ramos (who had an impressive second half of the season with Paris Saint-Germain). This is because the move to collective self-sufficiency has been gradual. Despite the shock of Ronaldo being replaced by Ramos for the Switzerland game, his move towards being at least a part-time substitute has not been brutal but incremental.

The starting point was as far back as a decade ago, when he arrived at the World Cup in Brazil with knee and ankle injuries. They were so limiting that this obsessive trainer was largely limited to a light jog around the pitch and stretches on the yoga mat. His struggles were never clearer than in the final group match against Ghana, in which Ronaldo tried to will Portugal to an improbable qualification for the knockouts. It was agony as his body refused. “I went because my country needed me,” he said in the 2015 documentary Cristiano. Yet he suggested a tinge of regret that he had gone in that diminished form.

Under Santos the balance of Portugal changed. As Ronaldo could no longer do everything the coach created a system where instead of walking he could be carried and, crucially, his superstar accepted this. He was nursed through Euro 2016 less than 100% fit, with Nani, Renato Sanches and João Moutinho among those taking the physical burden. It proved to Portugal, and Ronaldo, that they could succeed without him always being Superman.

So if Martínez hopes for a Ronaldo as humble as he is effective, there is every chance that will be the case. On Portugal’s arrival in Marienfeld last week, Ronaldo seemed in reflective mood, looking back to his last trip there as a 21-year-old, Luiz Felipe Scolari’s squad having stayed at the same base for the 2006 World Cup. “This generation deserves to win a competition of this magnitude,” he told reporters.

What does he mean? His generation? The generation that will take over from him? There is no real clarity on that, or on where Ronaldo really is at this moment. Yet we can be confident that he will be an asset for his team, in whatever form they need his help.