Gavin Bazunu hadn’t read the script. Faced against the might of Cristiano Ronaldo, who rarely misses from the penalty spot, few would’ve given the 19-year-old Republic of Ireland goalkeeper a prayer. But Bazunu dived low to his right and beat away Ronaldo’s spot-kick, denying the Portuguese superstar the goal that would have made him the standalone all-time leading international goalscorer. Ronaldo gave a sheepish look — not even a VAR referral for Bazunu’s save could spare his blushes.
But then, a penalty in the 10th minute felt like it would have almost been an anti-climactic way to break the record. After such an illustrious international career, Ronaldo’s defining moment in a Portugal shirt demanded something more dramatic, something more memorable.
He had to wait a long time for that moment of drama to arrive. Ireland took the lead shortly before half-time through John Egan’s header, and continued to frustrate Portugal for much of the second period, doing their best to defy the online betting odds. The hosts squandered chance after chance, and for a long time it looked as though Ronaldo and his teammates were set to be embarrassed on home soil.
But Ireland hadn’t reckoned against Ronaldo’s unique ability to make things happen on a football pitch. With 89 minutes on the clock, Gonçalo Guedes evaded James McClean and pinged a cross in from the right. Ronaldo was already in the air. His downward header nestled into the corner, leaving Bazunu with no chance. The record had been broken, a point had been salvaged, but Ronaldo wasn’t finished yet.
Deep into stoppage time, with Ireland hanging on for dear life, another ball in from the right-hand side, this time from João Mário, was met by the towering leap of Ronaldo. Another expertly planted header sailed beyond the dive of Bazunu, and the turnaround was complete, justifying the pre-match online betting tips after all. The 36-year-old ripped off his shirt and celebrated wildly in front of the delirious Estadio Algarve crowd.
These are the kind of moments which Ronaldo has built his legacy on. Within the sheer volume of goals he has scored for club and country, he has always been there to find the net when it matters most. The brace against Ireland was another moment of pure wizardry.
Given the events of the days leading up to the match, with Ronaldo completing a sensational return to Manchester United, you could have forgiven him for being slightly off-colour in the World Cup Qualifier. Indeed, the early first-half penalty miss was perhaps a symptom of his post-transfer hangover. But the difference between Ronaldo and many other players is that he doesn’t let setbacks define a performance — instead he uses them as fuel.
“It [the penalty save] is part of the game,” Ronaldo said after the game, “it’s part of the business. Sometimes you score, sometimes there’s a mistake but I still believe until the end of the game. I’m so happy to score and win the game. We believed until the end, the supporters too. I’m so glad.”
“From all the records that I have broken during my career – and fortunately there have been a few – this one is very special for me and it’s certainly on the shelf of the achievements that make me truly proud.”
There was an inevitability about Ireland’s demise at the hands of Ronaldo. It simply had to be. Now with 111 international goals to his name, he stands head and shoulders above Iran legend Ali Daei at the top of the list. At the age of 36, Ronaldo has had to adapt his game from the speedy winger we saw burst onto the scene in the mid-2000s. But he is showing no signs of slowing down. By the time he retires, who knows how high that number of international goals will be.