Cristiano Ronaldo's Euro 2016 had begun with an Iceland player describing him as an "ungracious human being" for whom Lionel Messi "is always going to be one step ahead of him."

It ended with the Real Madrid forward unselfishly casting aside personal torment to help inspire his Portugal team-mates to glory in the final against France after his own night had been cut cruelly short by injury.

As for the habitual Messi comparisons, Ronaldo will doubtless take extra satisfaction from the knowledge that he finally has what still eludes his great rival and nemesis - major international silverware.

It has been a wretched few weeks for Messi - first he tasted defeat in a fourth leading final with Argentina after losing the Copa America to Chile, missing a penalty in the decisive shoot-out and subsequently announcing his retirement from international football, aged just 29. Then the Barcelona maestro was sentenced to 21 months in prison for tax fraud, even though he is expected to escape serving any jail time.


For a time, it was uncertain if this would end up being a memorable or miserable few weeks for Ronaldo, too. He had been widely criticised for denigrating Iceland in the wake of Portugal's opening 1-1 draw against the Nordic nation, endured more frustration in a goalless stalemate against Austria, thrown a reporter's microphone into a lake in a fit of pique before facing Hungary and suffered the ignominy of finishing third behind Iceland in Group F to scrape into the knockout stages.

Even having reached final, the greatest European footballer of his generation must have wondered if more heartache was around the corner, if a repeat of Portugal's Euro 2004 final defeat to Greece was on the cards, after he was forced off amid floors of tears with a knee injury 25 minutes into the game.

Despair, though, would ultimately give way to joy and perhaps - just perhaps - the critics who generally recoil at Ronaldo's narcissist tendencies were given a glimpse of the more appealing side of his personality as the former Manchester United player - reduced to the role of reluctant bystander - refused to sulk or allow self-pity to consume him, instead cajoling, inspiring and motivating from the sides.

Ronaldo, Portugal's captain, normally leads by example on the pitch. He did that, most obviously, against Hungary when he set up the first equaliser for Nani and then scored the second and third equalisers himself to drag his country into the Round of 16, and in the semi-final against Wales, when his header put Portugal on course for victory.

But watching Ronaldo walking around the phalanx of tired bodies at the end of normal time at the Stade de France last night, trying to gee-up team-mates individually and coax one last push from them, was evidence of a different kind of leadership. For any player, there will always be a degree of self-interest, and Ronaldo clearly thinks a lot more about his legacy and place in history than many peers, perhaps understandably given that he lays claim to being one of the greatest ever.

Yet this was Ronaldo the team player and we had seen another example of that in the quarter-final when he persuaded a reticent Joao Moutinho to take a penalty in the quarter-final shoot-out over Poland. "Be strong! Come on!" Ronaldo told the Portugal midfielder, saying what needed to be said when others wouldn't. "Be strong. You hit them well, come on."

12 Jul, 2016 1:30pm
3 minutes to read

These are images that do not fit with the narrative of a player out for himself, one who was booed after collapsing to the ground following Dimitri Payet's early challenge, with France supporters' convinced it was the sort of play-acting with which he is associated. The reality, though, is that Ronaldo could not and would not have become a double European champion - for club, after Real's Champions League success, and country - in the space of just over six weeks, or achieved so much in his career, if he was egotistical to the point of the exclusion of others.

And even the French fans seemed to acknowledge Ronaldo's talents when he was roundly applauded as he left the field on a stretcher in the first half, relief that he would no longer be a threat tempered in part by the disappointment that the final would be denied the sight of its best player in full flow.

Yes, Ronaldo's entourage may have relocated his own personal museum to a bigger venue in Funchal, the capital of Madeira, where he grew up, and yes, the Museu CR7 nods firmly to a bloated ego. But it would only seem excessive if there was little success to underpin it. Yet the honours keep tumbling.

Euro 2016 concluded with Ronaldo sporting the Henri Delaunay trophy to add to a litany of new records he broke during a month in France - Portugal's all-time record appearance maker, the most capped player in the history of European Championships, the first player to score in four separate Euros and the competition's all-time leading scorer with nine goals alongside Michel Platini.

It also cemented his place among the greats - and helped contest suggestions that Messi will always be one step ahead.