When Cristiano Ronaldo won his first World Player of The Year Award (now the FIFA Ballon d’Or) in 2008 after what, back then, seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime season with 42 goals, Nike launched a campaign celebrating the feat, titled ‘Your Love Makes me Strong. Your Hate Makes me Unstoppable’. It was a remarkably simple campaign by the brand, and one that encapsulated the Portuguese footballer’s public image — of a prima donna with undoubted natural talent but equally doubtful theatrics. It’s a view widely accepted that football fans the world over are divided into those who love Cristiano Ronaldo and those who can’t stand him. However, barring goal-line technology (and a certain diminutive Argentine), there have been few greater contributors to the modern game than the 30-year old Real Madrid goal-scoring machine.
The journey for Ronaldo from an awkward teenager (with very dodgy hair) signing for Manchester United after running rings around them in a pre-season friendly for Sporting Lisbon, to the Armani model with 313-and-counting goals for Madrid (some would say the hair is still dodgy) has been built on his unwavering ambition to be the best.
And the best he was, last season. Sure, Madrid didn’t win the league, defend its Champions League title (the much-celebrated La Decima — their 10th European title) or win the Spanish Cup, but Ronaldo was at the very top of his game in each of the three competitions, scoring the most goals in La Liga and the Champions League (joint top scorer), as well as winning the European Golden Shoe for a record fourth time. He also became the first player in Spanish football history to reach the 50-goal mark across all competitions in five consecutive seasons.
The 2014-15 season ended with possibly the worst nightmare any Madridista could conjure — arch rivals Barcelona won the hallowed European treble for the second time. It’s an achievement the Galacticos are yet to unlock, and as they look to put that under-par season behind them, Ronaldo’s role will remain pivotal.
Looking ahead To be fair, there isn’t a whole lot more Ronaldo can do. Madrid were the highest goal-scorers in the league — with 118 – of which the Portuguese star scored a whopping 40 per cent. As the new season gets under way this month, with new manager Rafael Benitez at the helm of affairs, the focus will undoubtedly be on plugging the gaps at the back. Madrid, despite finishing second, let in more goals (38) than third-placed Atletico Madrid (29) and fourth-placed Valencia (32). Barcelona only conceded a measly 21 goals all season in the league – which is effectively where they won the league.
For Ronaldo personally, though, it will be a case of more of the same, please. His gradual evolution into a No.9 has brought with it an unbelievable goals-to-games ratio, ensuring Madrid have no problems in finding the opposition’s net. However, Ronaldo could do with some help from his team mates. While he scored almost on demand, there was scant support from the other attackers. KarimBenzema finished a distant second with 15 goals, while the world’s most expensive player, Gareth Bale, managed to find the back of the net only 13 times.
Then, of course, there is the intense battle between Ronaldo and Messi to win the FIFA Ballon d’Or and be crowned the World Player Of The Year. The Argentine forward has three Ballond’Ors to his name, while Ronaldo made it a two-peat with his win in 2014. Messi’s starring role in Barcelona’s treble win last season will undoubtedly make him the odds-on favourite to reclaim the title this time around. This will only push Ronaldo to take his game to higher levels — if that’s even possible — to make sure Real Madrid win La Liga for the first time in three seasons (a fact that surely irks him), and to continue being the best player in the world while at it.
A global phenomenon Off the field, Ronaldo defines the modern football superstar and all that he is expected to be. That he is supremely skillful is a given, but then so are Eden Hazard, Neymar and the outrageous ZlatanIbrahimovic. Yet none of them are the global phenomenon that Ronaldo is. Yes, it helps that he dons the most recognisable shirt in football. It also helps that the club he moved to Madrid from was another commercial behemoth, with a global fan base of millions. It’s the remarkable numbers Ronaldo has raked up since his move to Spain, however, that have taken him to superstardom.
Sample this: since moving to Madrid in 2009, Ronaldo has scored 26, 40, 46, 34, 31 and 48 league goals respectively per season. Or this: in 300 appearances for Madrid, he has scored 313 goals at an astonishing 1.04 goals per game, and is now only 11 goals shy of becoming the highest goal-scorer in the club’s history. And there is no sign of him slowing down anytime soon (despite him hitting the big three-o this February). After winning the Ballon d’Or for the second consecutive year in 2014, Ronaldo had this to say: “I’m 29, but I feel like 25. I can keep playing at a great level for five, six, seven or more years.”
While it would have been hyperbole for most footballers, in the case of Ronaldo, it isn’t. Athleticism has always been one of the biggest contributing factors towards his success, but he hasn’t waited for the inevitable loss of pace to start remodelling his game. From a winger with blistering pace to a ruthless goal-scorer, preserving his stamina for that devastating counterattack, Ronaldo has evolved rapidly, and with alarmingly little effort, into a more complete footballer. The steady rise in the number of assists he has chalked up — up from 12 three seasons ago to 18 a season later, and 22 in all competitions in the 2014-15 season — only lends credence to the belief that he now plays in a more altruistic manner than before.
But then there are also the countless suggestions of him being a selfish footballer, of hogging the limelight, not joining in the celebrations when they score, and putting self ahead of team. That’s the thing with Ronaldo, though — he will never be as widely revered and respected by fans cutting across club allegiances, in the way Ronaldinho or ZinedineZidane were. Not that Ronaldo has ever cared.
Take, for instance, one of his most entertaining post-match interviews at United, when he was asked why he was never too far from controversy. In what is now perhaps his most famous quote, Ronaldo, in his heavy Iberian accent, said: “Maybe someone don’t like me, but… maybe because I am too good.”
“Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.” Gordon Gekko wasn’t referring to Cristiano Ronaldo when he said these lines, but he could very well have done.
Ronaldo’s need to be the best at everything he does, no matter if it is a team mate he has to push to second, is what sets him apart — both in a good and not-so good way. Funnily, Ronaldo’s most endearing quality has always been his honesty. He wears his swagger on his sleeve, in a refreshingly open manner. He doesn’t have to worry about his individuality eclipsing his performance – his style is as much in his game as it is in his clothing line.
He isn’t one for false modesty, either. He’s bloody brilliant, and he knows it all too well. He knows how important he is to his employers, and he wants them to recognise it. So, it was hardly a surprise when Real reportedly made Ronaldo the highest earner in the Spanish league with a new long-term contract in 2013. What was even less surprising was that it came soon after Welshman Gareth Bale arrived at the club for a fee that eclipsed Ronaldo’s as the highest in the world.
Either way, for his 100 million official Facebook fans and the millions of other un-recorded ones, he’s the entire package — the player and the persona. Ronaldo has never shied away from acknowledging his fans’ adulation. He continues to delight his many admirers with his skills and his image, and his fan base keeps growing. He manages to walk the tightrope of maintaining his high-profile rock star image and still being the large-hearted nice guy.
The other side Aside from promoting charities like UNICEF and Save The Children, avoiding getting tattoos to be able to donate blood safely and helping tsunami survivors rebuild their lives, Ronaldo has occasionally shown his softer side — hugging pitch invaders, sending touching video messages to his former manager, even personally tracking down a twenty-something girl whose lost phone he found at a restaurant in Las Vegas. He treated her and her friends to dinner as well. Coincidentally, one of the young boys whose home was rebuilt using funds sent by the Portuguese FA and raised by Ronaldo has been signed up by the latter’s boyhood club, Sporting Lisbon, as part of their academy.
And then there’s the competition. In The Dark Knight, there is a scene in which The Joker looks Batman straight in the eye and says: “You complete me.” That, perhaps, is the best way to describe the relationship Ronaldo shares with Messi. Two geniuses, at opposite sides of the spectrum – playing for arch rivals, vying for the No.1 spot – and yet feeding off each other’s brilliance to push harder, go further and achieve more.
Ronaldo, for all his talent, skill and general all-round greatness, will perhaps best be remembered for being one half of the most engaging rivalry in football. It’s simply impossible to talk about him without mentioning Messi, and vice versa. Perhaps, in any other era, Ronaldo would have been declared the greatest player hands down, except in this one. Because, well, there’s Messi.
Remember the number of league goals scored by Ronaldo that we mentioned earlier? Well, here are Messi’s numbers for the same seasons: 34, 31, 50, 46, 28 and 43. That’s a total of 232 goals in 206 appearances, at 1.13 goals a game. Last season, the two scored 14 hat-tricks between themselves, have shared the Ballon d’Or since 2008 and have re-written almost every perceivable individual record.
When hostile fans want to rattle a player, they boo. When they want to rattle Ronaldo, they chant Messi’s name. Though both players have denied being in a personal battle, the fact remains that the only benchmark left for either man is the other. When Ronaldo has a magnificent game, Messi goes a notch higher. When Messi scores a brace, Ronaldo responds with a hat-trick. As long as he’s playing, Messi will be both the biggest influence and greatest challenge for Ronaldo. Messi is the antithesis of everything Ronaldo is — the flashy cars, celebrity friends and modelling are not for him — and yet, there is so much these two geniuses share. They are the symbols of their clubs and their nations – gladiators who fans look up to for inspiration when the battle is bloody and a victory is improbable. And boy, they deliver.
What’s next? For Ronaldo, who is two years older than Messi, the immediate goal will be to emerge as Real Madrid’s top scorer — a feat you’d expect him to reach in a handful of games next season — and then match his Argentine counterpart blow-for-blow in every arena they meet in. Ronaldo’s agent, Jorge Mendes, was quoted saying that he reckoned his client could “score 30 goals a season at 39”. It might be a step too far, even for Ronaldo, but I wouldn’t put my money against it. Neither should you, to be honest.