Confederations Cup gives Cristiano Ronaldo another chance at glory
Cristiano Ronaldo is ready for the Confederations Cup: Portugal's talisman has a new haircut for the tournament and a pair of specially designed boots, so do not be in any doubt that he is taking it seriously.
Love him or loathe him, Ronaldo elevates every game he plays and every tournament he competes in simply by being there. The personalised touches with the boots, the hairstyle and whatever else he has planned, merely sprinkle a little more stardust in his wake.
Every competition needs a star player, and this Confederations Cup is already benefiting from the reflected glow of Ronaldo's presence. Alexis Sanchez may yet steal the show with South American champions Chile, or we could see Leroy Sane claim the world stage with Germany, but Ronaldo will be the biggest story because of his insatiable appetite for success and single-minded pursuit of silverware.
Last year's triumph at Euro 2016, when Portugal defeated France in the final to emerge as European champions for the first time, ended Ronaldo's lengthy wait for international glory. Ironically, it happened after Fernando Santos' team overcame Ronaldo's injury-enforced loss early in the game to win without their best player. Nobody expected Portugal to go all the way, but Ronaldo delivered when it mattered, scoring a crucial goal in the semifinal victory over Wales in Lyon. His presence on the touchline in the final, urging his teammates on with a heavily bandaged knee, highlighted the significance of the success for the Real Madrid forward.
France 2016 may have quenched Ronaldo's thirst for international success, but Russia gives him the opportunity to claim yet another trophy and further embellish his status as one of the world's greatest players.
If you discount the Europa League on the basis that he has never played in UEFA's secondary competition, Ronaldo has won every major trophy for which he has competed with the exception of the World Cup, since leaving Sporting Lisbon for Manchester United as an 18-year-old in August 2003. There have been near-misses in the World Cup -- Luiz Felipe Scolari's Portugal reached the semifinals in 2006 -- but if the biggest trophy of them all is to elude Ronaldo, the Confederations Cup will go some way to filling the hole.
It is a competition that has yet to capture the football world's imagination, but when Russia 2017 begins Saturday, every continental champion, plus the World Cup winners and host nation, will be attempting to win the trophy, and Ronaldo has admitted that he regards it as a cup he dreams of lifting.
"It will be the first time Portugal compete for the Confederations Cup trophy," Ronaldo told FIFA earlier this year. "It's going to be beautiful and will stay on our CV.
"Obviously, it's a dream to win, but we know it's going to be hard as some great teams will be there. But in football, everything is possible."
At 32, Ronaldo's remaining ambitions are likely to be played out in Russia, this summer and next year. He will be 35 by the time Portugal defend their European crown at Euro 2020, and even if he makes it all the way to Qatar for the World Cup in 2022, it is difficult to envisage Ronaldo hauling his nation to glory at the age of 37. Therefore, the only gaps in his CV will have to be filled in Russia, a country he has already experienced success in following United's Champions League win against Chelsea in Moscow in 2008.
That was Ronaldo's first European Cup; he now has four after inspiring Real to victory over Juventus in the Champions League final in Cardiff, Wales, earlier this month. His determination to win the Confederations Cup is a mark of Ronaldo's determination to amass the honours, though, in what has become some kind of football arms race with Lionel Messi.
Messi has suffered plenty of international heartache with Argentina, losing the World Cup final in Brazil three years ago and also emerging as a runner-up in three of the last four Copa America tournaments. Ronaldo's Euro 2016 win gave him the edge over Messi on the international stage and another successful outcome in Russia this summer will take him further ahead of his rival.
This season has already been a glorious one for Ronaldo, with Real's success in La Liga and the Champions League adding to his personal victory over Messi in the Ballon d'Or. But Ronaldo now has the chance to win again, and he is likely to be Portugal's driving force, with Santos' team strong favourites to qualify as winners of Group A ahead of Russia, Mexico and New Zealand.
If Portugal go on to lift the Confederations Cup in Saint Petersburg on July 2, it will be the 21st winner's medal of Ronaldo's career. And it will mean just as much as all the rest.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_