Ronaldo soars in journey from golden child to father figure
Team-mates hail 'magnificent' motivation after injury heartbreak
Where next for Ronaldo?
It was 2.20am on Sunday night when Cristiano Ronaldo finally emerged through the mixed zone deep underneath the Stade de France. He was arm-in-arm with Ricardo Carvalho, part of a conga line which included Nani, Jose Fonte, Bruno Alves and Eder. They were singing a song to the old Portuguese tune 'pouco importa, pouco importa' as they danced through the room, onto the coach, and their next party.
Two things were immediately apparent about Ronaldo, beyond the fact that his damaged left knee was so heavily strapped that his dancing was uneven. The first was that this was the happiest moment of his whole career, even after three Champions Leagues and three Ballons d'Or.
The second was that was that this was a Ronaldo subsumed within the group, one of the lads, entirely at odds with his reputation as a selfish individualist.
Everything Ronaldo did on Sunday night was for the good of the team, as he overcame the ending of his own dreams by urging his compatriots on to fulfill theirs. Cedric Soares revealed afterwards - just before the conga line came through - just how important their captain was to that historic win.
"For me and the team, everybody was a little bit in shock," Soares revealed. "But at half-time, Cristiano had fantastic words for us. He gave us a lot of confidence. He said, 'Listen people, I am sure we will win. So stay together and fight for it.' He was fantastic, his attitude was unbelievable."
During the second half and then extra-time, we saw a new Ronaldo, coaching his team-mates, running up and down the touchline, kicking and heading every ball. "Always he helped our team-mates, he always had a lot of motivational words," Soares said. "He had fantastic words for each player in each moment of the game."
This was final proof of what had been apparent all tournament, that Ronaldo relishes his role as a father-figure for this young team. He has embraced the fact that, as their best player and captain, he has a duty to his team-mates and captain to give everything he can for the group. That is what Fernando Santos told him when he took over two years and Ronaldo agreed.
What it shows is that at 31 years old, Ronaldo has grown up. His peak years, his first five or so seasons at Real Madrid, were spent scoring stacks of goals but for a dysfunctional team. He won one La Liga, one Champions League, and two Ballons d'Or, but always gave the impression of being slightly unfulfilled.
This year, though, even if he is not quite the player he was, Ronaldo has been finally rewarded for his years of brilliance. The third Champions League title was far from his best performance, but it puts him in an even higher level of individual achievement.
This European Championship counts for even more. There are only so many players who have triumphed in the club game and the international one, but Ronaldo can now claim to have done so. And while Andres Iniesta has won even more than him - four Champions Leagues, and three international trophies - he won those as part of a brilliant Spain team, built on his own historic Barcelona side too. Zinedine Zidane's World Cup and European Championship also came in a France team packed with talent.
Ronaldo's achievement of dragging an average side up to his level is more impressive. It puts him in an even higher level of greatness, and gives him a claim to be Europe's finest ever footballer. He has been at the top for 10 years, an achievement in itself, and how has the individual, club and international honours to show for it.
One day soon enough Antoine Griezmann and Gareth Bale will be the best two European players. Even Ronaldo cannot go on forever. But what has been so thrilling about Ronaldo in France has been how he has held off the challenge from these two pretenders. He beat Bale's Wales in the semi-final, scoring a brilliant header, a goal that only he could have scored.
Then, in the final, Griezmann blew his chance to win it and Ronaldo was the champion. Getting to the top is one thing but staying there even harder.
The next question, then, as Ronaldo takes a few weeks off before returning to Real Madrid pre-season, is what now? The only trophy he has not yet won is the World Cup. He feels such a strong sense of duty to this young Portugal team that he will stay for the next two years to try to take them to Russia. He knows that Renato Sanches, William Carvalho, Joao Mario and Bernardo Silva, who was injured for the Euros, will all be better players then.
Ronaldo will be 33 but he has never played in a World Cup final and will not give up one more chance to get there. Their first qualifier, against Switzerland in Basel, is just eight weeks away.
Ronaldo has two years left on his contract at Real Madrid and would like a new deal there. He did flirt with Paris Saint-Germain last season but they are now going in a different direction. Manchester United, too, have gone for other big-name players and now employ a manager in Jose Mourinho with whom Ronaldo fell out at Real.
The likeliest scenario is that Ronaldo stays in Madrid, even if he will eventually be caught up as their most dangerous player by Gareth Bale.
He could very well win another Champions League, or Spanish title, before he eventually moves on. But ultimately nothing Ronaldo does as an individual or for a club again will ever match what he has done this month. He has made the extraordinary so ordinary that no 50-goal season will ever register again.
He has won enough club finals and trophies that one more would not tip any balance.
This win, though, counts for more than anything else he has won before. He has inspired a team to be better than they thought they could be, and shock a whole tournament.
He has dragged a team up to his level, which no-one thought he could do. And he has done so with a maturity and selflessness few saw in him.
Nothing else he has done or will do will match this.
Independent News Service