Ronaldo’s declining ability could hurt Portugal at Euro 2024

DORTMUND, Germany — Cristiano Ronaldo is still the selfie king, even at 39 years old, 20 years after appearing at his first major tournament for Portugal. But it’s probably a sign of his waning influence on his national team that he registered more selfie attempts from picture-chasing fans than significant contributions for his country during Saturday’s 3-0 win against Turkey.

Six supporters — four during the Group F match in Dortmund and two while the players were leaving the pitch– ran onto the pitch with the sole intention of having a photograph with Ronaldo in a clear breach of Euro 2024 security. The former Real Madrid and Manchester United forward is such a global superstar that it is no surprise that fans, young and old, are prepared to risk ejection from a stadium just to get a brief picture with him.

But Ronaldo is in Germany to play football, to help inspire Portugal to a second European title in three tournaments, and the harsh reality is that his powers are on the wane. The selfie stunts may end up being a distraction from his performance against Turkey, but no one can escape the truth forever, and Ronaldo, who was once the man who carried a nation’s hopes, might now end up holding his team back if they progress to the latter stages.

Ronaldo did add another chapter to his incredible record book by registering an eighth assist at a Euros when teeing up Bruno Fernandes for Portugal’s third goal. He now shares the record with Karel Poborsky, the former Czechia midfielder, for assists in European Championships.

But with statistics, you can give and you can take away. The assists milestone is the positive — the negative is that Saturday’s game marked the sixth successive fixture in a major tournament in which Ronaldo has failed to score, his longest-ever goal drought in World Cups and Euros.

That Ronaldo is even playing at Euro 2024 is a remarkable testament to his talent, fitness and dedication. His first tournament was Euro 2004, when he burst onto the scene with another teenage sensation from England called Wayne Rooney.

Rooney’s last major tournament was Euro 2016, and he was already on the slide by that point. Since then, Rooney, another former Manchester United forward, has taken four managerial jobs and is now sitting on the Euro 2024 pundits’ sofa. In contrast, Ronaldo has spent the past eight years winning trophies and breaking all kinds of records, so his contribution to the game can never be downplayed.

But every player, no matter how great, begins to decline at some point, and Ronaldo is now that guy. He doesn’t move so freely now, and his once rapid stepovers have become more predictable for defenders to read.

Even his assist for Fernandes in the 56th minute, when he unselfishly squared the ball to the Manchester United midfielder despite having a clear sight of goal, was a sign of his transformation into a player who knows there are now more influential teammates alongside him.

At his peak, Ronaldo wouldn’t have even contemplated passing up an opportunity to score, but Portugal coach Roberto Martinez, who has resisted calls to look to the future by using Ronaldo more sparingly, said the assist was a mark of his quality.

“From Cristiano, we saw something spectacular,” Martinez said. “To have him, an out and out goal scorer, pass the ball for the assist. It was a pure moment of Portuguese football that should be shown in every academy in world football. It showed that the team is the most important thing, that it means more than scoring any goal.”

There is a truth in Martinez’s comments, but what elevated Ronaldo way beyond his contemporaries — Lionel Messi aside — was his ruthless eye for goal and determination to take on even the slightest of chances. That’s why he scored so many goals.

But he hasn’t scored in 180 minutes at Euro 2024 and hasn’t looked close to doing so. His expected goals, or xG, after those two games is just 1.11, so he isn’t getting in many positions to score either.

There was a comical element to Portugal’s first goal, when Ronaldo fell over in front of goal as he attempted to reach Nuno Mendes‘s cross. After Ronaldo stumbled, Bernardo Silva followed up behind him and scored his first major tournament goal to give Portugal the lead.

Ronaldo was indirectly involved in Portugal’s second, too, when his failure to make a run onto João Cancelo‘s pass led to Turkey defender Samat Akaydin misjudging his pass back to goalkeeper Altay Bayandir, who missed the ball and saw Akaydin’s heavy back pass roll into the net. That calamitous goal made the game safe for Portugal, and also confirmed their position as Group F winners, but Ronaldo’s pass to Fernandes early in the second half put the seal on their win.

Portugal are a team that can win Euro 2024. They have an abundance of talent in all areas of the pitch, but Ronaldo is no longer the player he was, and it is difficult to envisage him worrying the defences of Spain, Germany or France at the sharp end of the tournament.

“It is important to understand what a player brings,” Martinez said ahead of the Turkey game, when defending his decision to start Ronaldo. “Cristiano brings experience, brings goal opportunities, a way of opening up spaces.

“He is in the national team because he deserves to be here, just look at what he has done and what he has done in the last competitions.”

Ronaldo’s history is undisputed, but in the here and now, Portugal might finally need to look to the future.