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Ronaldo’s time to prove greatness

Cristiano Ronaldo, who from a young age made no secret of his desire to be regarded as the best in the world, has been dogged for years now by a football snobbery that says no player can ever be regarded as ‘a true great’ until he has underlined his talent by weaving his magic on the World Cup or European Championship stage.

Perhaps this is the tournament for him to finally answer his doubters.

On the face of it, the idea that a player cannot be a legend until he has won an international trophy is bizarre; especially in this age when Champions League football is often regarded as of a higher standard and when teams so often arrive at World Cups and European Championships jaded and carrying injuries from a hectic domestic season.

It’s a rule that means George Best cannot be regarded as ‘a great’; that denies Ryan Giggs a place in football folklore and that condemns any player from a country unlikely to win a major trophy — and that includes England and Wayne Rooney — to the second tier of football’s hall of fame.

There are even those — including the greatest footballer of them all, Pele — who have suggested Lionel Messi cannot claim to join the ranks of Maradona and Cruyff until he has won something with Argentina, or at least won himself a Golden Boot at a future World Cup.

For Messi, that is perhaps not an impossible scenario; but for Ronaldo, who is so often left to carry Portuguese hopes on his own? Well, it’s a big, big ask; but at the age of 27 this could be his opportunity.

Portugal have been drawn in the Group of Death with Germany, Holland and Denmark and start their campaign today with a match against the Germans in which they will be very much the underdogs. But that tough group gives Ronaldo an opportunity to do something special, and it’s an opportunity he wants to take; for whatever reason.

"Comparisons with other players from the past do not bother me," he insisted. "I just want to win and win. I’ve done it with my clubs and perhaps now I can do it one day with my country.

"Maybe people think we can’t win, but for me, Portugal is one of the biggest teams in Europe and we have a great history.

"Portugal has a good teams with players who play in the best clubs in the world. Now all we need is to play as a team and to hope this time we get some luck. Can we fight for the title? I don’t know, it depends on many factors. But why not?

"The problem is at the moment of truth we have not taken our chances in the Euros or in World Cups in the past, although we came very close in 2004 when we were at home. But it’s still my dream to win a trophy with my country, so let’s see if this time we can do something good."

Ronaldo could not possibly go into the tournament in better shape, given that he scored a remarkable 60 goals during the season for Real Madrid and helped them achieve the unthinkable by overhauling the mighty Barcelona to finish atop La Liga.

"It was a great achievement because it took 10 months of fighting to do it," he said. "The objective during all that time was to be champion so we are very happy to have achieved it. And to have beaten a team like Barca makes it even more special. It’s much better to win against one of the best teams — it makes it better.

"Overall my season has been very good, but I’m missing the Champions League title so maybe I can’t say it was the very best year. But the Euros are still where I have hopes of doing something good with Portugal, so you never know."

Ronaldo has been through all this before, of course. During his time at Manchester United he broke all goalscoring records but still had to listen to suggestions that he had never performed to his true potential in a major final. That one seemed to disappear after he scored in the Champions League final victory over Chelsea and has since disappeared into the ether during an astonishingly successful time in Madrid. So who’s to say he cannot achieve the same turnaround in Ukraine this summer?

"It’s not about me, it’s about the team and we need to start well," said Ronaldo. "Everybody knows Germany is one of the big favourites. Starting against them is a huge risk but we must accept this challenge face to face and without fear.

"Defeating them would be an amazing result and give us lots of encouragement for the quarter-finals."

His former Manchester United colleague Nani is struggling to shake off an injury to his right foot and may miss Portugal’s opener tonight.

"Nani trained yesterday and tomorrow he will train again and then we will evaluate this injury," coach Paolo Bento said.