There was a great tableau on television the other day when Cristiano Ronaldo asserted himself in the European soccer tournament.
A two-man jury of his peers – Eusebio and Luis Figo – was seen celebrating the goal that would put Portugal into the semifinals. My friend Rob Hughes described Ronaldo’s match so well in the International Herald Tribune and New York Times.
Figo was leaping into the air as befits a Galactico of the past decade, whereas Eusebio was more earthbound as befitting a deity of the ‘60’s. They have given and suffered in public. Now it is Ronaldo’s turn. By sheer talent and burning will, Ronaldo has become the dominant player – perhaps the only dominant one – of the current Euros. You cannot take your eyes off him.
Italy plays as a unit with masterful passing but no finishing. It controlled the ball for over 60 per cent of Sunday's scoreless quarterfinal with England and had to win it in a shootout.
Germany, which beat plucky Greece on Friday, is a force, free and inventive enough, but depending on a system.
Spain, going for an unprecedented third straight major championship, depends on brilliant players fitting into a balletic order. The short precise passes were beautiful to watch on Saturday during the 2-0 dismantling of France.
The great correspondent Jere Longman writes that Spain is falling short of the high expectations it set. It's hard to tell from the tube, but that's why Jere is there, to get the feel on the ground:
Italy and England, the two old men of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, came into the Euros refitted with old parts and new parts.
New parts contributed two of the most inventive goals of the tournament so far – Danny Welbeck’s backheel flick of a goal for England, Mario Balotelli’s powerful backward cannonball for Italy while out-wrestling an Irish defender.
Welbeck and Balotelli are part of the changing face of European football, black men in a formerly mostly-white world. Both were in the starting lineups Sunday as their clubs figured out how much they needed them in the knockout quarterfinal match between England and Italy. .
Balotelli, greeted by an unusual display of warmth from his Premiership colleagues in the pre-game handshake line, was a tower of frustrated strength, playing against his Manchester City teammtes, Joleon Lescott and Joe Hart, the keeper. He and Hart smiled at each other before Balotelli calmly scored on the first penalty kick.
In a way, Eusebio is the spiritual grandfather of Welbeck and Balotelli.. Born in Mozambique of an Angolan father, he chose to play for Portugal. In the 1966 World Cup, he was the stately, sturdy core of the team that defeated Pele’s Brazil, 3-1, in the first round, with Eusebio scoring two goals. Pele and Eusebio on the same pitch. Can you imagine?
In the quarterfinal round, Eusebio was hacked and pummeled by the mystery team from North Korea, caught so vividly in the greatest documentary ever made about soccer -- the classic Goal. Eusebio responded with four goals within a 32-minute span in mid-match, carrying Portugal to a 5-3 victory. Portugal lost to the host team England, 2-1, in the semifinals but 1966 was still the high point of Portugal’s international soccer history. A championship in the Euros would bring Ronaldo up to Eusebio’s stature.
Figo was not so lucky. He was aging in the 2002 World Cup when Portugal surrendered three quick goals to the United States and lost its first match, 3-2, and never reached the knockout range. So now Figo leaps in the air in celebration of Ronaldo.
Well, don’t we all. With his smirks and scowls and self-centered preening – and that is just toward his teammates – Ronaldo is not the most appealing figure in this tournament. Just the best, He can leap like a pro basketball player, making himself dominant in scrums at both ends of the field. He lurks like Maradona did, but can accelerate like a Bo Jackson or Gale Sayers going around the end in American football.
Suddenly he is there. He stunned the very good young Czech defender, Theo Gebreselassie, son of an Ethiopian-born doctor and a Czech mother, by zooming in for the goal that won the quarterfinal and sent Figo flying and Eusebio beaming.
We will see Ronaldo again in the semifinals against the defending champions. Then Italy against Germany. Lucky us.
(Always happy to have your opinions/reactions/critiques under COMMENTS)
(And just in case you missed these goals, the precious heart of this sport. We celebrate them when they happen.)
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see:
George Vecsey is Hofstra University's Alumnus of the Month! Read a Q&A with George here.