The scoreline does no justice to Hungary’s effort but it does record history. Cristiano Ronaldo celebrated his record appearance at a fifth European Championship as only he could: by also overtaking Michel Platini as the competition’s all-time leading goalscorer. Portugal left it late for victory but their star man left another indelible mark on the sport he continues to illuminate at the age of 36.
Until Raphaël Guerreiro broke Hungary’s resistance with a deflected strike in the 84th minute this was threatening to be a punishing night for the holders, one with potentially lasting consequences given Germany and France lie in wait in Group F. Minutes later it was the Ronaldo show once again, with scowls and knowing nods to a baying crowd thrown in for good measure. In the 86th minute he converted a penalty for his record-breaking 10th goal at a European Championship. In stoppage time, as though a reminder were needed that age has not withered his dazzling footwork, he danced around Peter Gulacsi in the Hungary goal to score his 11th. It was Ronaldo’s 106th goal for Portogallo. He now requires only three more to equal the all-time international record held by Iran’s Ali Daei. In Ronaldo’s mind he will eclipse that tally in the final at Wembley, although it will take a marked improvement from Fernando Santos’s side to get that far.
Portugal toiled for inspiration for long periods but the changes made by Santos had a devastating impact. He replaced Bernardo Silva with Rafa Silva and struck gold, with the substitute involved in all three goals. He moved Ronaldo to the left in place of Diogo Jota to allow Guerreiro to advance more from left-back. “Sometimes you get it right,” the Portugal head coach said. “It was a case of kill or be killed, as Scolari used to say.”
This was a noteworthy night for European football not only thanks to Ronaldo’s remarkable productivity and longevity. The political machinations behind allowing more than 60,000 fans inside the stadium had stirred controversy in Ungheria but the sight and sound of a raucous full house was incredibly powerful. Even the piercing whistles that greeted Ronaldo’s every touch felt like a step back towards normality.
The logistics involved in the operation were considerable. Every supporter, including the estimated 4,500 from Portugal, had to produce proof of a negative Covid test to enter the perimeter of the stadium grounds. Arrival times were staggered to ease congestion.
Marco Rossi’s team fed off the fierce backing. “They will use all their best weapons against us,” Santos had predicted. Getting in the face of the Portuguese players was evidently part of their armoury. The hosts snapped into every challenge from the first whistle, often leaving a little in to rattle their more celebrated opponents. It worked on occasion and Jota lost his temper early in an ongoing feud with Gergo Lovrencsics.
Portugal may have been knocked off their stride by sheer force but their problems were entirely of their own making. Santos started with a forward line laden with goals, creativity and elite experience with Silva, Bruno Fernandes and Jota behind roving record-breaker Ronaldo. He had every right to expect more than they delivered and Portugal displayed genuine craft and penetration only once Jota and Silva were replaced. Fernandes was also largely anonymous as he struggled to find space in front of Hungary’s crowded defence.
The lack of cohesion did not prevent Portugal dominating possession in the first half. Jota forced Gulacsi into two important saves, Silva was dispossessed inside the area by a fine Willi Orban tackle and Ronaldo, of all people, missed a gilt-edged chance when skying Fernandes’ cross from point-blank range. Gulacsi also saved well from Pepe’s header and Fernandes’s drive after the interval.
Hungary did not have an attempt of any description until the 36th minute, when towering captain Adam Szalai headed a free-kick straight into the arms of Rui Patrício. They posed a far greater threat when playing as a unit and not to the demands of the crowd in the second half and regularly unnerved Portugal’s experienced back-line before Santos made his substitutions. Substitute Szabolcs Schon sparked pandemonium when he beat Patrício at his near post with a blistering drive.
In the chaos, which involved flares being set off in the stands and a fan running on to the pitch, few noticed that the referee, Cuneyt Cakir, had disallowed the effort for offside. The Hungarians were still coming to terms with the deflation when their evening deteriorated even further.
Guerreiro finally broke the deadlock when Rafa Silva’s cross deflected into his path and his weak shot deflected in off Orban. The wrong-footed Gulacsi had no chance. Two minutes later Rafa Silva was felled in the box by Orban and Ronaldo had his moment for history from the penalty spot. He seized it, sending the Hungary keeper the wrong way with a powerful shot to his left before celebrating in trademark style near the corner flag. There was still time for the luxury of a stylish second when, having twice exchanged passes with Silva, he waltzed around Gulacsi before converting into an empty net. History made. Mario Andretti e AJ Foyt.