DONETSK, UKRAINE - If a resurgent Cristiano Ronaldo really does want to cement a legacy as the world’s top soccer player above Lionel Messi, he’s getting the perfect stage to do it.
Lead Portugal to a victory in the Euro 2012 semifinal against rival Spain Wednesday at Donetsk’s magnificent Donbass Arena and even his most harshest of critics would have to finally give the incredibly gifted Portuguese scorer his much-deserved due.
The motivation, as if he needs any, comes in the form of the traditional red jersey of Spain, the sight of which can rile up Ronaldo like a bull when it sees the same hue of crimson being waved in front of it.
Ronaldo, of course, plays for Real Madrid in Spain's La Liga. The club is regarded as one the elite soccer giants of the world. There, he pumps goals in on a game-to-game basis, earning him superstar status in the process and the adulation of Madrid fans from around the world.
Trouble is, Ronaldo does not come from Spain.
He is, as we all know, from Portugal, Spain’s neighbour on the Iberian Penninsula.
And, in many ways, Portugal’s biggest rival on many fronts.
Just look on a map. Portugal is bordered by two things: Spain and the Atlantic Ocean. That’s it.
Last we checked, the Atlantic Ocean doesn’t have a representative in Euro 2012.
Every time the fine citizens of Portugal look to the east, they see a Spanish side oozing with success on the pitch over the past few years, a juggernaut that is attempting to set a record by winning three consecutive international tournaments.
Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010 already are under Spain's belts. History awaits should the Spanish be able to capture Euro 2012, a prospect that became more realistic Saturday thanks to a 2-0 victory over a suprisingly game French side.
The Spanish, as has been the case at times in this tournament, have had periods of hiccups during matches and this one was no different.
But they were still able to successfully defend against the French, who could never offer up any sustained pressure to threaten Spain’s all-world goaltender Iker Casillas more than a handful of times. When they did make Casillas work, he was up to the task, especially on a French free kick in the first half that was targeted for the top corner until the Spanish keeper deflected it out of harm's way with his outstretched fingers.
The Spanish got all the offence they needed in the 19th minute with the type of tic-tac-toe passing play that, let’s face it, very few teams can pull off. It was started by Andres Iniesta, crossed by Jordi Alba, then finished off by the noggin of Xabi Alonso, a perfect header that found its way into the far corner.
For their demanding fans back home in Spain, there haven’t been enough examples of such beauty in the so-called “Beautiful Game” from the Spanish camp. As such, there has been ensuing criticism dogging the squad, which seems curious seeing as they are unbeaten and have a berth in the semifinal.
Alonso would score again in extra time on a penalty kick.
Meanwhile, the Portuguese supporters can only look across the border to the east and wish they had such problems.
But whatever inferior complex the Portuguese might have next to their big brothers can easily be wiped away Wednesday if Ronaldo’s celebrated boot can produce some magic against Spain.
The knock against Ronaldo from both the critics and the Portuguese public is that, while he fills the net in clusters for Madrid, such moments of brilliance have been few and far between when he tugs on the jersey of the national team. In fact, when Spain eliminated Portugal in the knockout round of World Cup 2010 in South Africa, his frustration oozed over when he spit in the direction of the cameraman when he left the field.
Not the type of lasting image you want to produce.
This time could be different.
After whining that Danish fans were mocking him by chanting “Messi, Messi,” Ronaldo has become a monster in this tournament, scoring Portugal’s last three goals en route to wins over Holland and the Czech Republic.
On Wednesday, versus world champion Spain, he can build his legacy even more.
But it won’t be easy.