Ronaldo's irrepressible will to win still burns bright

“He doesn’t need to care that much.”

Cristiano Ronaldo has won just about everything there is to win in football.

Three English Premier League titles, two La Liga trophies, two Serie A crowns, five UEFA Champions League successes, four FIFA Club World Cup gold medals, a copious amount of domestic cups across England, Spain and Italy, not to mention his five Ballon d’Or trophies.

At international level, add in winning the UEFA European Championship in 2016, and the UEFA Nations League in 2018-19 for good measure, and the record for most goals scored in men's international football, with 130.

Meanwhile, just last season, Ronaldo broke the record for most goals in a single season of the Roshn Saudi League, with a staggering 35. It is evidence that, despite the fact he turned 39 in February, the Al Nassr captain is hell bent on not slowing down.

It is a staggering list of accomplishments for the boy from Funchal, on the small island of Madeira, some 1,000 kilometres south of mainland Portugal.

Few would forgive Ronaldo, now in his apparent twilight, for not caring about adding even more accolades; for sitting back and basking in the afterglow of one of the most remarkable careers in the history of the game.

But that’s not Cristiano Ronaldo. He does care, perhaps more deeply than has ever been fully appreciated. That burning sense of drive and pride was on full display for the world to see earlier this week, towards the end of Portugal’s dramatic penalty-shootout victory over Slovenia in the UEFA European Championship Germany 2024 last 16.

Ronaldo, his country’s captain just as he is for his Saudi Arabian club, missed a penalty in the second half of extra-time, which almost certainly would’ve been enough to win the game. Chasing a second Euros crown eight years after their first, Portugal would have booked their spot in the quarter-finals.

The miss, his first in 14 attempts for Portugal, clearly ate at Ronaldo. Heavy is the head that wears the crown. For the prolific forward, failure is not an option, and in that moment, he felt he had let his teammates and his country down. The tears came, his teammates then quick to offer their support.

"Without a doubt it's the last Euro [for me], of course it is," Ronaldo told Portugal TV's RTP. "But I'm not emotional about that. I'm moved by everything that football entails, by the enthusiasm I have for the game, the enthusiasm I see in the fans, having my family here, people's passion.

“It's not about leaving the world of football. What else is there for me to do or win? The most important thing about the journey I've been on is the enthusiasm I still have for being here. It's 20 years representing and playing with the national team, bringing joy to people, to the family, my children. That is what motivates me most."

For Portugal manager Roberto Martinez, Ronaldo’s physical expression of his dismay was something to admire, not admonish.

“First and foremost, he’s a constant example for us,” Martinez said. “When you see a player, the only player that has ever played six European Championships, and he’s got that responsibility, that desire, that belief. As a young man, those emotions are incredible for someone that has won everything and has experienced everything.

“He doesn’t need to care that much, and that’s why I thank him for being the way he is, for caring for the group, for being someone that after missing a penalty - which only the penalty takers can miss penalties – he was the first penalty taker [in the shootout]. I knew, I was certain, he had to be the first and show us the way to the victory.

“And we’re all very, very proud of our captain. The dressing room was delighted with what he’s doing, and he gave us all a lesson that you need to live every moment as the last one. You need to have real high standards and never give up. Life in football gives you difficult moments and the way he reacted is a real example that we are very proud in Portuguese football.”

History will show Ronaldo was able to avenge his miss by scoring Portugal’s opening penalty in the shootout as goalkeeper Diogo Costa became the hero with three successive penalty saves. With captain and colleague working in perfect tandem, Portugal prevailed 3-0 on spot-kicks to set up a mouth-watering quarter-final clash with France on Friday.

While they will have to combat the influence of N’Golo Kante in midfield, the headline act will be that of Ronaldo versus Kylian Mbappe. Having last month completed his highly anticipated move from Paris Saint-Germain to Real Madrid, the 25-year-old Frenchman is considered the heir to the throne of Ronaldo as the game’s next global superstar.

Mbappe, 14 years Ronaldo’s junior, has admitted to Ronaldo being his idol growing up. He had posters of him, during the No.7’s record-breaking time at Madrid, on his bedroom wall. There are also photos of a fresh-faced, teenage Mbappe meeting his idol at Madrid’s training ground at Valdebebas in 2012.

The admiration is mutual, with Ronaldo writing on Instagram upon Mbappe’s signing in Madrid: “Excited to see you light up the Bernabeu.”

However, there will be no room for sentiment at the Volksparkstadion in Hamburg. Ronaldo’s irrepressible will to win would not allow it.

"We will now have a difficult game against France, who are the favourites to win the competition along with Germany and Spain, but let's go to war," he said."We will fight until the end."

It’s what Ronaldo knows inherently to do. It’s all he has ever done.