Ricardo Quaresma becoming key for Portugal after years in the wilderness
In March 2015, a photograph of Ricardo Quaresma caused a ripple of amusement online. The winger, coming towards the end of his second spell with Porto, had just appeared as a substitute in their 3-0 win over arch-rivals Sporting but his attire in the postmatch mixed zone provoked more attention than his on-pitch cameo.
Quaresma's combination of gilet and leggings was certainly eccentric and didn't alter the sense that a player of dazzling early promise had, rightly or wrongly, become a figure of fun.
Spoke to Ricardo Quaresma last night, safe to say he makes it into the top 10 worst dressed footballers of all time! pic.twitter.com/5AdfcTj3ul- Dan Tunna (@dantunna) March 2, 2015
Fifteen months later, the cheap laughs have stuck in a few throats. Against many expectations, Quaresma has had a decisive influence for Portugal at Euro 2016 and appears to be a man reborn. If his winning goal against Croatia was relatively straightforward, the penalty shootout decider that finally eliminated Poland showed a mastery of high-pressure situations.
"I had an entire country in my hands," he said after beating Lukasz Fabianski to send Portugal into the semifinals. "I stayed positive and knew it was going to be a goal."
Such certainty has not been a consistent feature of Quaresma's career. It has sometimes seemed as if the word "mercurial" could have been invented for the 32-year-old. He was an outrageous talent when he broke through at Sporting before moving to Barcelona at the end of his teenage years with, it seemed, the world at his feet. Yet things have not really worked out since and it was Cristiano Ronaldo, 18 months younger than his Sporting teammate and not widely considered to be a greater prospect, who pushed on to become a global superstar.
Quaresma flickered at Porto and Besiktas and flopped at Inter and Chelsea; he was often considered flashy, an enigma, all trademark rabonas and trivelas (the latter a finish with the outside of the boot) but not enough of the disciplined, hard work through which you make your mark at the top level.
His spontaneity made him something of a throwback -- and a YouTube compilation maker's dream -- but at the same time, it made him hard to be trusted in a team playing a certain way.
"When I find myself in a situation with three choices I will always choose a dribble or a trick over a square pass or a pass 20 metres back to our defenders," he once said. "Life is all about risk and how you confront it, and football is just the same."
Quaresma, whose mother is of Roman descent, was nicknamed "O cigano" (the little gypsy) early in his career and believes that this has created an unfair perception of him.
"I've never smoked, never drunk, never experimented anything but because I'm a gypsy it's difficult to escape this reputation," he told Portuguese TV channel SIC before Euro 2016. For whatever reason, negative stories have tended to follow him around and the way his first spell at Besiktas ended in 2012 -- his contract paid up six months early after a falling-out with then-coach Carlos Carvajal -- seemed to send his career spinning headlong into the abyss.
A subsequent move to Dubai-based club Al Ahli did little to alter that perception but in the three years since, everything has turned around. Quaresma is now back with Besiktas and, out of almost nowhere, in some of the form of his life, helping them last season to their first league title since 2009.
Now it is his former teammate Ronaldo who cannot quite get going at Euro 2016 and Quaresma who, perhaps the first time in a decade and a half, is stealing the headlines (or at least the important moments) from his colleague. Where once he was regarded as a liability, he is stepping up to the mark and it seems that at last, a player who was always popular with fans has matured into the one his country had hoped for.
Quaresma's role in France this summer has mainly been to expose tiring defences from the bench. His sole start came in the goalless draw with Austria in which he didn't perform particularly well, with coach Fernando Santos saying afterwards that he had positioned himself too close to the touchline. But this summer will still be marked as a triumphant time for someone who had not featured in a major tournament for Portugal since Euro 2008 and who went six years without scoring an international goal.
He has benefited from the faith of his manager, who came with a defensive reputation after a dour spell with Greece but does at least appreciate the importance of those who can turn a game at the top end of the pitch.
"Fernando Santos is a coach who deserves my respect forever," said Quaresma after the Poland win. "He is one of the few, perhaps the only one, to give me the confidence I needed."
In a sense, his integration into Santos' team is a tribute to the manager's ability to forge a unit out of a squad that has often been over-reliant on Ronaldo. Indeed, this run to the semifinals has been founded on contributions from all over the pitch, with Quaresma among those ready to step in and do his bit.
Perhaps, at last, Quaresma has found exactly the right balance between risk and reward. The man with the questionable dress sense and the two teardrop tattoos on his face may never quite shake off his reputation as a showman and an unfulfilled talent but if he takes Portugal to their first European Championship title, it will certainly be better late than never.
Quaresma is far from indispensable, but it is notable that Portugal would currently be poorer without him.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.