Think of the team, Ronaldo

Portugal striker Cristiano Ronaldo (left) and centre back Pepe during practice at Donbass Arena in...

Portugal striker Cristiano Ronaldo (left) and centre back Pepe during practice at Donbass Arena in Donetsk, Ukraine, June 26, 2012. (VASILY FEDOSENKO/Reuters)

JAMES LAWTON, Special to QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 2:39 PM ET

DONETSK, UKRAINE - Cristiano Ronaldo arrives in the unyieldingly tough town of Donetsk -- where a month in the steel plant or coal mine scarcely covers the cost of life's essentials -- as though from another planet.

He is, of course.

And as he frequently points out, a truly fabulous creature, beautiful, self-obsessed and, for some years now, the single most important occupant of his extremely singular world.

Ronaldo gave an early hint of this while walking away from Moscow's Luzhniki stadium where he won his first great prize of the Champions League in 2008 with Manchester United.

He was asked if perhaps he owed the supporters of that club some hint about his future plans. "I explain myself to no one -- not even my mother," he said.

It is also true that while he has intimate knowledge of his Spanish opponents in Portugal's semifinal Wednesday, in some ways they might, like the hard vodka-swigging shot-firers and furnace men, also belong to an alien species.

Soccer rarely has known such a polarization of the concepts of "I" and "Us" as the one we can expect in the Iberian shootout at the Donbass Arena.

The issue is simple enough. Few players have believed in themselves quite as much as Ronaldo. Few teams have despised the cult of the individual more deeply -- or successfully -- than Spain. It means that Ronaldo is about to face something of an inquisition, one which might just decide a tournament which has rarely been less than intriguing.

While the Portuguese, led by coach Paul Bento, argue that they, too, are a team but one which just happens to have a player with the ambition to announce himself over the next few days as the world's best player, midfielder Custodio has offered one flash of candour: "Yes we fight as a team but let's be honest, our weapon is not a big secret."

Indeed, the extent of Portugal's debt to Ronaldo, if it should win its first major trophy all these years after the great Eusebio, would be unprecedented but for the fact that 26 years ago Diego Maradona all but carried Argentina on his back to a World Cup triumph in Mexico City. Can Ronaldo do the same for his nation in Euro 2012?

Clearly he thinks so. His body language has rarely been more animated and recently his potential to do more or less anything he chooses was endorsed by Maradona. Ignoring luminous compatriot Lionel Messi, Maradona announced, "I think that Ronaldo is now the world's best player."

It was an extraordinary, if maybe somewhat perverse, tribute to a player who has challenged Messi with his extraordinary scoring feats and sheer athletic versatility for Real Madrid in breaking the Barcelona stranglehold on La Liga.

Even so, and despite the momentum he has created for Portugal with three goals and killing interventions against the Netherlands and the Czech Republic, his Bernabeu teammate and Spanish captain and goalkeeper Iker Casillas said, "I don't think right now he at his best level but no one has to tell me I must be on my guard."

If Ronaldo should happen to go up a notch Wednesday it could just be that the Casillas vigilance will have to reach optimum levels.

Ronaldo has pointed out that his rival, Messi, failed to deliver the South American title for Argentina.

"It is a great moment in my life and Portugal's football and I want this title very badly," Ronaldo said. When he applied the sword to Netherlands in the final group game, the Portuguese dependence on their captain verged on the hilarious.

In a blazing piece of role reversal, Ronaldo provided the perfect scoring opportunity for Nani, who missed horribly, Ronaldo' face was consumed by disbelief -- and then filled with absolute serenity a few minutes later when he fashioned a goal for himself with both sublime skill and unfaltering conviction.

His expression said he was more than the man. He was, at that moment, the soccer universe.

It may be a beautiful state of mind but then there is no escaping the possibility of an ugly denouement. Two years ago in Cape Town, Spain's bone-deep faith in the team ethos overcome the sporadic brilliance of Ronaldo in a hard, ill-tempered World Cup second-round game.

Xabi Alonso, who found his own place in the Ukrainian sun with the two goals that beat France in the quarterfinal, expects a similar outcome in Donetsk: "The press say we are boring but we are very secure in the way we play and our coach (Vincente del Bosque) has a lot of faith in us -- he gives us our liberty. Portugal and Ronaldo are riding high. We can make small adjustments, sure, for Ronaldo but playing as a team is the best way to stop any player."

Del Bosque remains confident. He believes the absence of leading World Cup marksman David Villa can be overcome by the Spanish system that so effectively starves the opposition of the oxygen of possession. What can Ronaldo do if he doesn't get the ball?

It's worth noting that Pele, still generally accepted as the world's greatest player in history, had one supreme gift among an armoury of weapons that even Ronaldo might have envied. It was one of humility.

"I never saw Pele ever do anything that wasn't solely for the benefit of his teammates," Sir Bobby Charlton said. "He knew how great he was -- but he also knew the importance of the team."

Under the force of the Spanish inquisition, Portugal must pray that something similar occurs to the great Ronaldo.

James Lawton writes for The Independent in the UK


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