Christiano Ronaldo.jpg
Photograph: EPA/MIGUEL A.LOPES

Cristiano Ronaldo may have appeared at the tail-end of Portugal's golden generation of footballers but as the country prepares to begin Euro 2016 against Iceland on Tuesday, he is all too aware of his role in the current squad.

"After Euro 2004, I’ve felt responsible for being part of this great generation," he told Italian magazine Undici in a recent interview. "I know a lot of boys and girls look up to me today as an inspiration."

Portugal hosted Euro 2004 in what was supposed to be the crowning glory of a group of star players such as Rui Costa, Fernando Couto and Luis Figo, who had dominated youth football several years earlier.

A then teenaged Ronaldo joined them but a shock final defeat to Greece meant Portugal remained without a major title and a miserable semi-final defeat to France in the 2006 World Cup confirmed major rebuilding was required.

Since then Ronaldo has, at times, almost single-handedly carried the hopes of his nation on the field even when it seemed obvious to everyone else he was not fit to do so.

The Real Madrid striker played though injury at the 2014 World Cup and memorably said he would have felt better sitting out if Portugal "had another two or three Cristiano Ronaldos."

In his Undici interview, he unashamedly said he considered himself to be the best player of the last 20 years.

But now aged 31, time is running out if Ronaldo is to secure an international title to complement his clutch of club honours and the latest effort kicks off in St Etienne against minnows Iceland in Group F.

Lars Lagerback's side have built steadily in recent years and capped their progress by shocking the Netherlands, Czech Republic and Turkey to top their qualifying group.

“We know that Iceland have a very strong squad and that it will be a difficult game,” Portugal defender Cedric said Saturday. "They work well defensively and it will be tough for us to find a path to goal."

Iceland make their major championship debut and in a squad with precious few stars, they are being met with a new experience.

"You can feel that this is bigger than anything you have participated in before," goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson said, while other players commented on the massive security surrounding their hotel.

"We Icelanders are not used to this," added forward Alfred Finnbogason, who enjoyed a brilliant second half to the season with Bundesliga outfit Augsburg.

Iceland do have experience in their camp, not least through 37-year-old Eidur Gudjohnsen, who won the 2009 Champions League with Barcelona, but also Swedish coach Lars Lagerback who is a veteran of major finals, both with his own country and Nigeria.

"We are here for the first time but he has experienced several tournaments," Finnbogason said of the coach.

Iceland have based themselves in the relatively remote eastern town of Annecy in a bid to keep the pressure off.

"We know this is our first major tournament, so we are trying to get a bit of privacy in a very beautiful hotel here in the mountains," assistant coach Heimir Hallgrimsson said. "The preparation is focused on making us feel good."

On Tuesday, the time for privacy will be over and the pressure, avoided for so long, will be unavoidable. But that is a price Iceland will happily pay for finally being involved at a major finals.

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