DONETSK, Ukraine -- Cristiano Ronaldo did not attend the prematch news conferences Tuesday in Donetsk. But his presence loomed large. Spain coach Vicente del Bosque and Portugal coach Paulo Bento addressed the media with representatives of their teams ahead of Wednesday’s all-Iberian Euro 2012 semifinal. The threat presented by Ronaldo and how to stop it was the main topic of conversation.
On a day when Diego Maradona, the last individual to carry a team on his back to glory with Argentina in 1986, declared, “Ronaldo has shown his countrymen that he deserves a statue in Lisbon,” it seems the Real Madrid star has already cemented his glory at this tournament. All that is left to negotiate is how high that statue should be.
Here’s a sense of the key issues that both coaches, one taciturn, the other pugnacious, addressed with gravity on the eve of kickoff.
1. The greatest team in the world competes against one of its greatest single players.
Although the Spanish were eager to frame the game as the clash of a collective against an individual, the Portuguese were eager to reframe the game by throwing the spotlight back onto their whole team. “It’s logical that there is so much talk about Ronaldo,” del Bosque said matter-of-factly. “He is not only a great player, but he plays in Spain, so that’s obviously a factor. We have to deactivate him.”
Andres Iniesta echoed his coach’s message. When asked whether he felt any competition with Ronaldo to become the player of the tournament, the unshaven midfielder said, “No, the truth is I don’t personally wish for any such award. The only thing I think about is Spain getting to the final and lifting the trophy again. That is my preoccupation.” He added softly with contempt, “It does not matter what awards individuals win.”
Hugo Almeida, the hefty striker who will replace injured Helder Postiga up front for Portugal, attempted to deflect every question about his captain back to the Portuguese team in a charming yet wooden fashion. “Ronaldo has a great personality,” he said, “and I am sure he will do everything to get us in the final … just like the other 22 members in the squad.”
2. The most common used words in two-team news conferences: courage and heart.
Bento is a man who loves to use key words. For him, the game is all about Portugal’s heart and courage – themes he returned to emphasize repeatedly.
Del Bosque was not allowed to dictate the terms of the debate in such constructive fashion. The Spanish coach was peppered with questions about the “boring” nature of his team’s play, and he rejected them in clipped fashion. “Of course we want to go forward,” he said. “Winning two trophies is proof of our quality. Not only do we have our style, but it bought us success.” Then, with a wave of his hand, he added, “People like to complain about things all the time.”
Listening to the tone of the two conferences, it was hard to tell which team was the defending Euro and world champion and which was pretender to these crowns. It was left to Iniesta to deal with the issue diplomatically. “Football is great in this respect," he said. Not everyone likes the same thing, and not everyone can agree on everything. It is the diversity of opinion which makes the game so special.”
3. This will be a battle to dictate where the game is played.
The Portuguese have no intention of repeating France’s performance anxiety in the quarterfinal. “Spain’s identity is about ball possession,” Bento said. “They will always try to play in last third of the pitch. That is why they are world champions. But we have an identity, and we will be loyal to that. We are not going to just defend all the time. We have reached the semifinal playing very well.”
Del Bosque knew exactly where he would like the game to be played – toward the final third of the field. “I would prefer [Portugal] to play deep," he said. "I like us to be in the opposition's half and to have possession of the ball. I think that we have the players and the resources to open up defenses.” But he did not expect his opponents to curl up into a defensive shell. “Portugal will not change their style of play,” he said. “I am expecting the same Portuguese team from their first four matches.”
4. Recent matches have no bearing on the game, nor do the club rivalries.
Portugal trumped Spain 4-0 in their last meeting, a November 2011 friendly in Lisbon that was La Roja’s worst defeat since 1963. Spain won the teams' last competitive game on a David Villa goal in the 2010 World Cup round of 16. Both camps agreed the two games had no bearing on events in Donetsk. “There will be two very different teams on the pitch now,” Bento said. Iniesta was in agreement. “[Lisbon] was a long time ago,” he said. “It has to do with the match we are going to play tomorrow.”
Three of Portugal’s starters, Ronaldo, Pepe and Fabio Coentrao, are familiar to the Spaniards because they ply their trade with Real Madrid, but their clubmate Alvaro Arbeloa dismissed the idea that their familiarity with their opponents and their rivalry with Barcelona will have any impact. “It is like in a club game when you play against your teammates from the national team,” he explained. “Tomorrow I will play for my national team and will not be friends with my clubmates. It is critical to know who you play with and who you play against.”
Iniesta did admit to one external motivation, the tragic loss of young Spanish defender Miki Roque, who died of cancer Monday at age 23. “We are playing for Miki,” he declared, “and I hope we can dedicate the final and indeed the whole competition to him.”
5. Portugal’s secret weapon? The “Women of Ukraine.”
A peculiar feature of every Euro 2012 news conference is the inevitable moment when a Ukrainian journalist shifts the focus from football to discover how the coaches are enjoying the hospitality of their host country. On the eve of the semifinal, one particularly brave Ukrainian had the confidence to ask the stern Bento whether he was aware that “95 percent of Portuguese women were cheering for Ronaldo. Is that important, does it not matter, or do you not care?”
For the first time all evening, the Portuguese coach cracked a smile. “If it was 95 percent until now, I think Cristiano can win the last five percent of women if he inspires us to victory.”
Roger Bennett is a contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @rogbennett.