That Carlos Queiroz, the former Portugal coach, was not off target was proved again on Wednesday night. After a gallant, valiant show that had captured the imagination of many throughout the tournament and every neutral person in the stadium on Wednesday night, Portugal finally bowed out of the Euro 2012 after losing in penalties to Spain.
Earlier, the 27-year-old had powered the Seleccao to a 2-1 victory against Netherlands with two goals in what was his best performance at Euro 2012. It was his tireless efforts that made Portugal come out unscathed from the Group of Death with the second position. He had led Portugal to an emphatic win against the Czech Republic in the quarters.
So it was down to him again in the semi-finals against the Spanish Armada. This was his chance to set to rest all those allegations that he doesn’t sparkle in the national colours as much as he does for the club he is playing for. This was his chance to defeat the country he considers his second home. This was his chance to finally come out of the shadows of Messi as the greatest player of recent times. Ronaldo had a lot riding on his 27-year-old shoulders on Wednesday night.
All the bets went in favor of a Spain victory, although many were optimistic about a Portugal win and a match-winning performance from the captain himself.
Even before the match began,Portugal were given a slight advantage in defence as Vicente del Bosque sprung a surprise and elected to start with Alvaro Negredo in attack ahead of both Fabregas and Fernando Torres. His Portuguese counterpart Paulo Bento made one change as injured Helder Postiga was replaced by Hugo Almeida.
From the very beginning, the Seleccao set about disrupting Spain’s rhythm by pressing their opponents high up the pitch. It worked for the opening few minutes as La Roja struggled to get their foot on the ball but they soon forged a chance for themselves. Andres Iniesta played a give-and-go down the left flank with Jordi Alba before passing the ball into the box. Negredo could not get a shot away but managed to stab it back to the top of the penalty area where Alvaro Arbeloa tried to caress it into the top corner but his attempt flew over the bar.
But the Spaniards were by no means dominating the match by their trademark “tiki taka” style. The talisman Cristiano Ronaldo, even though surrounded by two to three Spaniards always, was proving difficult for Del Bosque’s men to deal with.
However, two charging runs down the left failed to result in anything to truly test Iker Casillas. Then came a free-kick and a wild volley on the spin inside the opening 25 minutes. But this was not a fractured Netherlands or minnows Czech Republic they were up against. And Portugal, after all, had only Ronaldo. The famed Spanish defence stood impenetrable.
The match ended as a 0-0 draw after 90 minutes even though it was full of excitement at both ends. Portugal attacked and defended resolutely as the Spanish Armada managed only two shots on target.
Thirty more minutes of excitement awaited the fans.
But all that running was tiring him down. There are replacements for others, but you can’t replace a Ronaldo. Soon, Portugal were no longer forcing their opponents to play from deep; instead allowing them to control the ball in their own half during much of extra time. Del Bosque’s side dominated the extra 30 minutes but Rui Patricio brilliantly thwarted both Iniesta and Jesus Navas either side of the interval to ensure the game went to a penalty shoot-out.
Both teams got off to the worst start possible as Patricio and Casillas both saved lame shots from Alonso and Moutinho, respectively. Iniesta opened the scoring for Spain as Pepe, Pique and Nani all scored for their respective teams. The score stood 2-2 . Then Sergio Ramos, who had been subjected to numerous jokes about his penalty against Bayern Munich for sending the ball to the second stand in the Bernabeu, did a ‘Panenka’ or more so, an ‘Andrea Pirlo’, cheekily chipping the ball into the back of the net. Next was Bruno Alves. He went for power and hit the bar. La Roja were smelling victory. Fabregas’s shot struck the inside of the post and went in.
It was all over. Spain had qualified for a third successive major final.
But wait, where was Ronaldo amid all this? It was all on his shoulders, no?
As the whole Spanish team leapt up in joy, the TV camera showed a dejected Portuguese captain mouthing into the night sky. Everyone was hoping for a signature stutter run-up followed by an emphatic penalty. But he chose not to take any of the first four shots. Throughout the shoot-out Ronaldo had cut a tormented figure — tension and agitation written large on his face. The coach had come to consult him after the game went to shoot-out. It emerges that he had agreed to go fifth then, a curious choice for the team’s best penalty-taker.
It must be a sense of déjà vu for Ronaldo. So close, yet so far. Euro 2004 — loss to Greece in finals. FIFA 2006 — loss to France in the semis. Euro 2008 — out in quarters. FIFA 2010 — out in the last 16. But this year was supposed to be different, no?
Only if he had taken that first penalty! That’s a regret that is set to haunt Ronaldo for years to come.