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Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal Problem

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Getty Images

There were plenty of excuses, just like there always are. Champions League final hero and noted galactic superstar Cristiano Ronaldo was fresh off a much-deserved vacation during which he obviously didn’t play many tune-up matches — and during which he’d possibly gone mad with boredom, having seemingly found the spacious backyard of his multimillion-Euro compound too lush. The mild Portugal summer sun was too relaxing.

On Tuesday, Ronaldo played in Portugal’s first match of Euro 2016. The opponent was Iceland, whose population is nearly 130 times smaller than his Twitter following. Even though he was facing accusations of malingering and the threat of meeting the same fate as the Red Viper, there was no reason to believe he wouldn’t take a step toward improving on that finals finish 12 long years ago. (Not for nothing, that’s the last time Portugal made it so far in any competition.)

In a match that would end in a 1–1 draw, it took Ronaldo almost 20 minutes to get his sea legs, but when he did, he looked perky. He neatly removed the batteries from a hopelessly outmatched Ari Freyr Skúlason’s back with a lightning-quick shift of direction and whipped a right-footed cross to Nani on the back post (which Nani didn’t convert).

That might’ve been the only thing about the opening movement of Ronaldo’s Euro 2016 that wasn’t grating.

A cagey first-half performance was pockmarked by headers nodded wide and, most notably, a giant, breezy whiff on a looping Pepe through ball just 10 yards out with only the keeper to beat in the 24th minute.

If not for a sneaky finish from Nani shortly thereafter (and for Portugal being in a different class and dominating possession, as they did all game), the half might’ve finished scoreless.

Even though observers thought that Portugal would employ the “Ronaldo Save Us” 4–4–2 and give themselves over to the striker’s mood and impulse, he seemed relatively contained. After that airball in the 24th, he flatlined in the final third of the field for another 50 or so minutes.

Not that I’d ever suggest it was all his fault.

Portugal started the second half pretty listlessly, and relinquished that tender one-goal lead in the 50th minute by letting Birkir Bjarnason chill — unmarked, for 10 whole seconds — right on the back corner of the 6-yard box. It wasn’t written anywhere that Portugal had to make it easy for themselves against an ostensibly not-as-good team, and damn it, they weren’t going to.

It’s a shame that Ronaldo and Lionel Messi hate each other. They might’ve been able to bond over the eternal struggle to bust their respective countries’ slumps. Like He Whom CR7 Would Prefer Not Be Named, Ronaldo’s club and international careers are totally out of phase with each other. As a Real Madrid player, he’s won two of the last three Champions League titles. Either he or Messi has won the Ballon d’Or every year since 2008.

But for Portugal, and for all his many talents, Ronaldo is a booming sound system in a car you can’t really trust to get to the grocery store and back, let alone all the way to a trophy presentation.

And so it went on Tuesday. Portugal regained control 10 or so minutes after Bjarnason’s equalizer, scaring up a few fruitless attacks and a few more fruitless corners, and the game came to a head with about five minutes left. Nani and Ronaldo linked up once more, perhaps to recall some of that old, weighted-dice, false-bottom Manchester United magic. Nani served it up on a platter, Ronaldo levitated above his marker, and then he headed it directly into the keeper’s hands.

It’s gonna be another one of those then, huh.