Spain beats Portugal on penalties

The Donetsk aftermath

How will Portugal's penalty failure impact its biggest star?

James Tyler

Two penalty shootouts in two consecutive Euro 2012 games, two Panenkas, two strikes off the crossbar and two photogenic displays of giddy jubilation and humanizing despair. Yet there was one element that distinguished England's demise via Andrea Pirlo's stylish chip from Portugal's upsetting defeat to Iberian rival Spain: Cristiano Ronaldo and the impending "PK-gate" sure to unfold over the coming weeks and months.

His shell-shocked expression. His stance, stuck staring to the heavens, eyes wide and unable to process the enormity of the moment. His quiet mutterings with the camera zoomed in for a close-up. As La Roja, cued by Cesc Fabregas' post-and-in game-winning shot, celebrated around him, he was still. Eerily unmoved. Rooted to the Donetsk turf, left to marinate in the cruel turn of events that rendered him helpless in A Seleccao's biggest moment since reaching the Euro 2004 final.

In the initial aftermath, you probably questioned Ronaldo's fortitude. Had he demurred the responsibility at the most inopportune time? Or was he so confident in center back Bruno Alves, shooting fourth, to calmly dispatch his shot and thus give the global megastar a chance to decide the game?

And yet, maybe I'm wrong here. It might take a few days, but Paulo Bento will surely take the fallout from the fact that Portugal's biggest star was left waiting for a penalty that ultimately never came. His order? Joao Moutinho, Pepe, Nani, Bruno Alves and his nation's prodigal son lining up as closer. (It's worth noting that the order is always subject to change, and not just by the coach.)

Yet the weird hiccup in the middle muddied the water and surely broke concentration. As Alves strode upfield to take kick No. 3, Nani hurriedly rushed to relieve his defender, who was stoic and robust all evening against anything Spain threw at Portugal's back four. If Bento's postgame comments are to be believed, Alves forgot the lineup and was rightfully deposed.

Whatever transpired -- and given that penalty orders are never set in stone, we may never know the cause of Alves' brain fade -- the confusion galvanized La Roja with a level of purpose it was lacking for most of the game.

How it played out was mesmerizing. The high drama of Sergio Ramos' confident march to the spot before mimicking Pirlo's spot kick, Rui Patricio as helpless as Joe Hart in watching it sail through the space he had just occupied. And the same consequence, too; Alves, now in his preordained fourth position, smacking it against the bar (wickedly, it rattled off the underside yet bounced clear) in a bid to regain pieces of his goalkeeper's shattered confidence.

From there, the shining moment: Ronaldo left with the sinking realization of his impotence as Fabregas pinged his kick past Patricio and in off the post to settle an absorbing (OK, dull) contest. (As bad as you may feel for CR7, your heart should really be with Bruno Alves, forced as he was through the psychological grind of prepping for not one, but two penalties before contributing the decisive miss.)

So just where does Ronaldo go from here? Just how easily does he live down the events of 10 insane minutes on the summer night in Donetsk? Does he even have anything to atone for, given that he was, as Bento suggests, simply following orders?

Ultimately, this may make Cristiano an even more brilliant player in the long run. Much like LeBron James computed and converted the crushing failure of the 2011 NBA Finals defeat to the Dallas Mavericks with an emphatic title run a week ago, it's easy to imagine the Real Madrid star returning to La Liga and becoming even more scarily dominant and focused. After all, his performances at Euro 2012 (except for his waning presence as the semifinal dragged on) have shown that Ronaldo is no longer this underwhelming force with the national team. Goals, inventiveness and influence defined his five-game stretch.

But international tournaments come every two years and Portugal's involvement is never guaranteed. It's conceivable that he never makes it back to a similarly pivotal moment at a future Euros or World Cup and is given the chance to destroy these demons with a penalty perfectly struck. Maybe he'll even bust out a Panenka of his own.

In the meantime, the fallout is anyone's guess. Many will point to Bento's lineup, Spain coach Vicente Del Bosque's stuffy approach and Alves' mental slip -- or Portugal's brilliant tactics that stifled but didn't overcome Spain's possession game -- but the lingering image of Ronaldo stuck on the halfway line is a prevailing image that won't be erased lightly. Nor will the perception of his ineffectual position, forced to bear witness to Spain's elation from just yards away instead of being intimate in the defining moment.

Only time will tell. Until then, Ronaldo could probably use a hug.

 

James Tyler is an assistant editor for ESPN.com’s soccer coverage.

 

© ESPN

To comment, you must be a registered user. Please Sign In or Register