That judgment alone would rile individuals in their team, particularly Cristiano Ronaldo, who considers every match as merely the setting for another assertion of his own brilliance, but the expectation was that the Netherlands would be among the quartet of exceptional sides at the business end of the competition. There is, though, the idea that this Portuguese team is still trying to convince itself of the full reach of its potential.
Ronaldo is such a dominant figure for his country that his team-mates are effectively belittled. The likes of Nani, Raul Meireles, Pepe and Fabio Coentrao will never suffer an inferiority complex, but the assumption of Portugal is that Paulo Bento's side is overreliant on the Real Madrid attacker. Ronaldo revels in the unrelenting exposure, but there was not an instant momentum to his performances in the tournament.
A player who has scored 237 goals in 299 games over six seasons – in two different countries – should be capable of immediately finding his range. Yet Ronaldo's finishing was never sure in the opening two games, although he hit the woodwork on several occasions. He looked occasionally perplexed, and it must have seemed unsettling for games not to bend to his will.
Ronaldo even stormed off the pitch following the 1-0 defeat to Germany in the opening group game, prompting Bento to later apologise and blame himself for the team's failings. With such a prominent and egocentric player at the forefront, the cult of the individual will always be a figure of the team dynamic, but Ronaldo does not suffer from a flaky resolve.
He was not among the goalscorers when Portugal defeated Denmark in their second group game, but he played as though driven by the need to prove himself. For such an exalted figure, that urge might feel unnatural, but he has always been dedicated to self-improvement. He does not drink, trains hard, and listens to his coaches; his relationship with Sir Alex Ferguson remains warm and respectful because Ronaldo accepted the worth of considering the Manchester United manager as a mentor.
This is the 27-year-old's fifth international tournament, but the first in which he has scored three goals. Once he struck the first, he appeared liberated. The selfishness of his early years has long since been discarded, but the only preening comes when he scores; the header that knocked out the Czech Republic in the quarter-finals was not a moment of glamour, just a clever and resourceful run across a distracted full-back.
The effort still required shrewd thinking, but a player who beguiles as much as Ronaldo can make a smart decision seem mundane. Acclaim has come more readily in his club career, in part because he was born on the island of Madeira, which considers itself part of Portugal but also distinct. There is admiration for Ronaldo, but not so much love, although being given the captaincy was a form of motivation but also acceptance.
The lack of goals in the opening two games would have rankled, but the frustration shown after the Germany game gave way to a sense of purpose. Even when Czech Republic supporters began chanting, "Messi, Messi, Messi", during the quarter-final, Ronaldo was unperturbed. The personal rivalry between him and the little Argentine is overplayed, not least because one plays for Real Madrid and the other Barcelona, but there is no part of the Portuguese attacker that would accept second billing.
Ronaldo thrives on the compulsion to prove himself peerless, and tonight's semi-final against Spain will seem to him a grand opportunity. He is one of seven members of the Portuguese squad that currently plays in La Liga, with Pepe and Coentrao also playing for the champions Real Madrid, while the Iberian nature of the rivalry will further dilute any sense of the defending champions being superior. There is even the recent memory of defeating the Spaniards 4-0 in a friendly two years ago.
"These are completely different matches. It was a friendly, there was nothing at stake and the Spanish players were relaxed," said Joao Pereira, the Portuguese full-back. "A better example is the second-round match at the last World Cup where Portugal could have beaten Spain, as the result wasn't that one sided [Spain won 1–0]. It is for certain that when one reaches a semi-final you think of the final as it is within reach.
Previous Portuguese sides have been cursed by the depiction of them as a golden generation. There is now a sole individual who is considered exceptional, but the lowering of expectations has been an advantage. The team still gathers around Ronaldo, but others have still imposed themselves, particularly the hard-running Miguel Veloso and the deft Joao Moutinho.
The assumption is still that Spain will continue to be the more regal of the two sides, and there is certainly a greater sense of collective will among Vicente Del Bosque's players, but Ronaldo has found his pomp. There will, at least, be a sense of occasion to the meeting.
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