At some point, even those who seem immortal are forced to acknowledge the passage of time.
Cristiano Ronaldo has wanted the clock to stand still for much longer than many, but the Portuguese powerhouse is now leading his country to a European Championship that is sure to be its last.
At the age of 36, this will be his fifth final, a record. He has played more games in the final, 21, than anyone else. His 31 goals in qualifying are the most in history. No one has scored more in the final and another, his 10th, would take him past Michel Platini.
Cristiano Ronaldo wants to lead Portugal to European Championship victory again after winning the competition in 2016
But as always with Ronaldo, a man so obsessed with winning, he wants more.
Five years ago, he’d been sitting on the grass of the Stade de France, tears in his eyes and a moth on his face. It was 25 minutes into the final and the Portugal captain left the field on a stretcher.
He spent the rest of the game roaring from the sidelines, preparing his teammates. “He called all the players, every name,” Nani recalls in a new BBC documentary, Ronaldo: Impossible to Ignore. “I think almost everyone felt his presence on the sidelines.”
Ronaldo had waited so long to atone for Portugal’s shocking defeat to Greece in the final 12 years earlier. Ronaldo had also been on the field in tears that day.
The attacker left the field on a stretcher during the final against France, but spent the rest of the game roaring from the sidelines
This time they did it. Eder scored the winner in stoppage time and Ronaldo lifted the trophy. He wants to do it again.
Portugal starts as one of the favourites, with the likes of Ruben Dias and Bruno Fernandes lighting up a brilliant squad.
If they are victorious at Wembley, Ronaldo will join Iker Casillas as the only man to lead a team to two European Championships. He would be the first player to have played in three finals.
That image we have of Ronaldo, legs apart, arms wide, is one we’ve seen for so long that it feels like it’s always been that way.
But what makes Ronaldo’s legacy so remarkable is that his place in the pantheon is a product of his own doing – the result of his will, his faith, his dedication. It hasn’t been easy.
The residents of Quinta do Falcao, the street in Funchal, Madeira where Ronaldo grew up, still remember him as the skinny kid who broke windows while playing football and ran.
He enraged the neighborhood because his mother, Maria Dolores, always refused to pay for the damage. She ignored notes from teachers who complained about his lack of effort at school. It doesn’t matter, she always said. Her son would become a professional football player.
However, that was not set in stone. He moved to Sporting Lisbon as a blotchy 12-year-old with a weird accent. It was heavy and there were doubts.
Ronaldo has always hated losing and was desperate to make up for Portugal’s 2004 defeat
“It was very, very difficult for him,” Ronaldo’s godfather Fernao Barros Sousa told The Post on Sunday. “All his family and friends were in Funchal. He didn’t know anyone in Lisbon and other kids laughed at him because his face was full of pimples. He told his mother that he wanted to go home. I don’t know how many times I had to persuade him to give up.
“In addition, the people of Lisbon love to joke about the way Madeirans talk, very quickly. Cristiano learned to talk like someone from Lisbon. He practiced for hours and hours in front of a mirror until his accent became imperceptible.’
When he arrived at Manchester United, he got Mick Clegg, the club’s power development coach, to help him turn that bag of bones into the behemoth we see today.
“This young lad shows up and says, ‘I’ve heard about the work you’ve done. I’m going to be the best player in the world,” Clegg said in the new documentary.
“I remember Ronaldo crying every time he lost a game,” said Pedro Talhinhas, youth coach at Nacional Club in Madeira. “His grief was so deep because he loved to win so much.
“The first time I saw him was in a children’s tournament. My team knocked his out of the cup and there was this skinny kid crying his eyes out in the middle of the field. Yet he was head and shoulders above all the others.’
Even as his Real Madrid teammates celebrated their 10th European title, known as La Decima, in 2014, Ronaldo was too distracted to participate.
The attacker worked on his strength and power to become one of the best players in the world
“The atmosphere is just incredible and then I saw a small group of players – Marcelo, Pepe and Cristiano,” said Paul Clement, then Real’s assistant coach. “I had to ask Cristiano what they were talking about. He said: “We are talking about coming back next year and winning again”. I thought, wow!’
Mario Jardel, the ex-Brazilian striker, played with Ronaldo at Sporting. “The first thing I noticed was his politeness,” he said. “But it didn’t take me long to realize he was an absolute beast. He wanted to train non-stop.
“He was curious too. Seeing his course these days makes me feel proud because I know he learned a thing or two from me.
“He never talked too much, but everyone knew there was something in him. Something special. I didn’t know what it was then. But now I know of course.”
We all know. Ronaldo turned himself from a bullied, skinny kid to one of the greats. His time on the big stage may be almost over, but Ronaldo knows he can make more history before it’s over.