Football: When there's someone like Ronaldo out there, these things can happen, says Spain coach Fernando Hierro about hat-trick

Portugal's forward Cristiano Ronaldo gestures during the Russia 2018 World Cup Group B football match between Portugal and Spain, on June 15, 2018.
Portugal's forward Cristiano Ronaldo gestures during the Russia 2018 World Cup Group B football match between Portugal and Spain, on June 15, 2018.PHOTO: AFP

SOCHI - An old legend in Portugal has it that an innocent man was once accused of theft and sentenced to death. But on his way to the gallows, the man swore that if he were innocent, a dead rooster would come back to life and crow. The rooster did, the man was set free.

The said chicken - known as the Rooster of Barcelo - is now one of the national symbols of the country.

On Friday, another preening rooster, himself an icon of Portugal - and ironically one who had been found guilty of tax evasion and handed an €18.8 million (S$29.5 million) fine and a suspended two-year prison sentence on the same day - crowed.

Enter Cristiano Ronaldo, who strutted on football's biggest stage like he owned it. He scored the World Cup's 51st hat-trick, as well his 51st career treble, against the mighty Spaniards no less. At 33, he is the oldest player to do so.

Naturally, he had to be the one to bail Portugal out of jail against Spain in the thrilling 3-3 draw at the Fisht Olympic Stadium in front of 43,866 fans.

At the post-match mixed zone, Portugal midfielder Bernardo Silva told The Straits Times: "As our captain, he is always a great leader, he is always a great player. Once again tonight, he showed us how good he is by scoring three goals."

Indeed, the worst thing you can do with Ronaldo is to doubt him or put him on backlash mode, and he showed how he is one of the most mentally tough athletes in the world of sport by setting out to grab the headlines for the right reasons.

 
 
 

Neither the off-pitch woes nor the slippery turf, made more slick by the evening drizzle, which caused a handful of players to lose their balance, could deny him.

Barely three minutes had lapsed when he bamboozled club-mate Nacho with a stepover, forcing an illegal challenge, and nervelessly converted the resulting penalty.

With Portugal accustomed to sitting back on a lead, Ronaldo was at the heart of every counter-attack in a frenetic start.

Spain did brilliantly to respond both to Julen Lopetegui's sacking just three days before, as well as to Portugal's bright start, Diego Costa and Nacho giving the 2010 world champions a 3-2 lead with more than half an hour to go.

But if there is one thing we know of Ronaldo, he tries and tries until he gets his way, shoots and shoots until he scores. And so it was that in the 88th minute, he smashed a stunning free kick to help Portugal salvage a precious point after he was pushed by Gerard Pique.

He did not score a goal from outside the box or net a free kick in LaLiga for all of last season, but in one game, he achieved both as he hit 84 goals in 151 caps.

He took 13 games and 70 shots from 2006 to 2014 to score three World Cup goals. On Friday, he required just 88 minutes and four shots to match his previous tally. No wonder he called it his best display in the competition.

At the post-match press conference, Spain coach Fernando Hierro conceded: "When there's someone like Ronaldo out there, these things can happen."

Still, it must be noted that while both Portugal and Spain should progress from Group B at the expense of Iran and Morocco, Ronaldo has yet to prove his worth in the knockout rounds of the World Cup, having never scored when it really mattered.

But Pedro Pinto, a journalist from Portuguese sports newspaper Record, feels that at this tournament, Ronaldo is driven by a greater sense of urgency.

"Realistically he knows this is his greatest chance to win the World Cup," he explained. "He is also in the best shape now because his condition is managed very well by his club, and there are many good young players like Bernardo Silva and Goncalo Guedes in a great team."

So Ronaldo is a man on a mission. Who dare bet against him?