Why 'symbol' Ronaldo remains Portugal's star draw

Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates with Francisco Conceicao after the youngster's winner against Czech Republic
Francisco Conceicao scored in the 92nd minute against the Czech Republic [Getty Images]

All eyes had been on 39-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo in the build-up to Portugal's European Championship opener against the Czech Republic but, not for the first time in Germany, it was a youngster who stole the headlines.

'Ronaldo 7' shirts had been everywhere in Leipzig before the game, as fans prepared to welcome the veteran forward's record appearance at a sixth European Championship.

They were no doubt hoping he would mark it with a goal but it was not to be and instead it was Francisco Conceicao - 18 years Ronaldo's junior - who snatched the dramatic winner as Portugal began their Group F campaign with a 2-1 victory.

It was practically his first touch after coming on for his competitive debut, and former England striker Alan Shearer was delighted with his contribution.

"You are sent on to change the game and to do something," he said on BBC One. "You have to make an impact as a sub."

"What a story," ex-Liverpool midfielder Danny Murphy added.

"There was me saying: 'What can you do in three minutes as a substitute?' He got a bit of luck with the deflection but he wasn't going to miss that."

It was a memorable moment for Conceicao, son of former Portugal player Sergio, and it was one that he celebrated with a delighted Ronaldo, who punched the air and high-fived his team-mates.

Portugal boss Roberto Martinez said the youngster deserved his winning moment.

"Francisco is the ultimate example of earning it," he said.

"He deserves to be here and showed he is ready to help the group. He showed character and showed his worth because he was allowed to be here."

A changing of the guard?

Cristiano Ronaldo takes a free-kick against Czech Republic
Cristiano Ronaldo was looking to add to his record 14 European Championship goals [Getty Images]

At 39, Ronaldo is into his final years of playing at the highest level, although his team-mate Pepe’s appearance at 41 will give him belief he has a couple of major tournaments in him yet.

His critics argue his place in the starting XI holds Portugal back, that he becomes the focal point and has a negative impact on the forward line's mobility.

But speaking to Portugal fans in Leipzig before Tuesday's game, it is clear the majority feel otherwise.

One fan described him as still "the best in the world", while another, Marta, said Ronaldo's contribution to the team goes beyond what he does on the pitch.

"He is still important because he has the motivation and the spirit and he unites the team," she said.

"Even for outside the team he is important. He is like a symbol that unites all."

Despite failing to score against the Czech Republic, he did have chances. He was twice denied in the first half by goalkeeper Jindrich Stanek, before seeing a header deflected wide after the break.

He remains a star draw and when Portugal had a free-kick 25 yards from goal, fans were on their feet with camera phones at the ready, only to see Ronaldo's effort comfortably caught by Stanek.

Ronaldo experience important for Portugal - Fernandes

But for his team-mates, the experience he can offer outweighs the need for him to be scoring goals.

"We all know that it is important to have experienced players, like Cristiano Ronaldo," said Manchester United midfielder Bruno Fernandes.

"In fact, Pepe is probably the most experienced in the entire tournament. We know they are vital to us."

For some of the best to have played the game, Ronaldo still has plenty to contribute at this level.

"Whatever you do, if Ronaldo plays well or the team plays well, he always finds a chance,” former Spain midfielder Cesc Fabregas said on BBC One.

"He takes care of himself to another level. He needs just one little moment of space to create a chance. His overall play has been much better than the last couple of years."

Shearer, meanwhile, praised Ronaldo's desire, but suggested he might have to accept a reduced role in some games for the benefit of the team.

"This is key to whether Portugal can go on and win the competition, because if he accepts he cannot play 90 minutes every game that will go a long way to them winning this," he added.

"When waking up after games and having that desire to go again, when you are in pain, that hunger and desire to be the very best.

"Everyone speaks in glowing terms about his attitude, it is phenomenal."

Ronaldo had talked up this generation of Portugal players before the tournament, saying they deserved to go all the way and replicate the country's 2016 win.

Those comments and his joyous response to Conceicao's winner suggest that he has the team's interests ahead of his own and, if that is the case, there is every reason to believe Portugal will go far in Germany.