PARIS (AP) — With the lightest of flicks and most aerial of jumps, Cristiano Ronaldo diverted the ball off his immaculately coiffed head, past the Austrian goalkeeper who had tormented him all night. Convinced that another footballing record was his, Ronaldo wheeled around in celebration.
Then, looking up, he saw the linesman waving his yellow and orange checkered flag.
Ronaldo looked like he might cry.
With three world player of year awards, there is no doubt that Real Madrid's goal-scoring record holder is a great footballer, the second-best of his generation. But the reason he will never be mentioned with any seriousness in the same breath as Pele, Diego Maradona or Lionel Messi at the very pinnacle of his sport is because of too many nights where Portugal's now most-capped player has failed to deliver for his country.
At the European Championship, there have been two such nights— first in a 1-1 draw against Iceland and, on Saturday in Paris, in a goal-less draw against Austria. Both are teams one would reasonably expect to be easy-ish quarry for a predator like Ronaldo. But this hunter in France has no fangs. At least not so far.
As with all teams that have a superstar among mere mortal teammates, there is always going to be the debate about why Ronaldo isn't the same goal-machine with Portugal that he is Real Madrid, where each of the last six seasons have seen him score at least 51 times for his club. Is the supporting cast or the lead actor to blame?
Ronaldo cannot complain that his failure to score at Euro 2016 is because opportunities haven't been delivered on a platter. Simple fact is that Ronaldo is fluffing his lines.
After his lack of grace against Iceland, where he uncharitably poo-pooed its tactics as too defensive, Austria represented a chance for Ronaldo to redeem himself by letting his feet do the talking. But his feet, and Austrian goalkeeper Robert Almer, didn't get the memo.
Coming up against a goalkeeper having an impeccable night can happen to the best players. Diving to his left, Almer got a hand to Ronaldo's fizzing left-foot shot 10 minutes into the second half that, had it gone in, would have seen Portugal's captain become the first player to score in four European Championships and added lasting meaning to his record 128th appearance for his country.
A minute later, Almer saved a goal-bound header from Ronaldo. He expressed his mounting frustration in the same way he sometimes celebrates his goals — by thrusting his hips forward like a matador.
Two free-kicks from Ronaldo in the second half proved sterile, too. The first he slammed straight into the Austrian wall. The second, in Gareth Bale territory 25 meters out, cleared the wall ... and Almer's cross-bar.
Bale, Ronaldo's teammate at Real Madrid, has scored twice from free-kicks for Wales at this tournament. Ronaldo's record, number-crunched by the football statisticians at Opta, pales in comparison: 36 direct free-kicks for Portugal in either European Championships or World Cups; none have gone in. It might be time for a brave soul in the Portugal dressing-room to suggest that Ronaldo let someone else try.
Being charitable, all of this, plus the mess Ronaldo made in the first half of a shot he sent wide of Almer's right-hand post, could be excused. He has had a long season with Real Madrid. Just three weeks ago, he was winning the Champions League with his club in Milan. Little wonder, then, that the 31-year-old looked sluggish at times. Particularly telling was the ease with which Stefan Ilsanker shoulder-barged him off the ball just before referee Nicola Rizzoli blew the whistle for the end of the first half.
But missing a penalty with just 11 minutes left to play? Inexcusable for a player of Ronaldo's caliber.
Rugby-tackled in the box by Martin Hinteregger, Ronaldo was always going to be the one to take it. He wiped the sweat off his face, steadied himself and fired. The ball bounced back at him off Almer's right-hand post.
"If this ball would have been a goal, we could have returned home to Austria," said relieved Austrian coach Marcel Koller. "Now we're still in the tournament."
A few minutes later, it seemed Ronaldo had redeemed himself with his headed goal, until the linesman flagged it offside.
After the whistle, and to his credit, Ronaldo posed for a selfie with a fan who ran onto the pitch, motioning away stewards to let him take the photo before they led him away.
That that was one of the most newsworthy moments of the night showed how forgettable this performance was from Ronaldo.
But because they happen so infrequently, it will be remembered for exactly that.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at email@example.com or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester