Few believed any player would reclaim the Ballon d’Or from Lionel Messi but one man always did. His crowning on Monday night was just reward for the sheer effort of belief
Cristiano Ronaldo has banged his head against the brick wall for four years; now the brick wall has given way. Ronaldo was apparently doomed to be forever tortured and defined by the achievements of Lionel Messi. By regaining the Ballon d’Or from Messi, and winning the award for the first time since 2008, he has provided emphatic confirmation that he is one of football’s all-time greats.
He almost collected the award as a Manchester United player. After being crowned at an endearingly overblown ceremony in Zurich, Ronaldo confirmed he had considered returning to Old Trafford in the summer.
“It is true Rio [Ferdinand] and I spoke a lot,” he said. “Rio is a great friend of mine. We were neighbours when I was in Manchester. He is a fantastic guy and he tried to change my mind and go back to Manchester. I did think about United. They are still in my heart. I love that club.”
It was an emotional night for Ronaldo, who was tearful when he received the trophy. “It means a lot to win this after Eusébio’s passing,” he said. “I dedicate this award to him and my team-mates. He was watching from the skies to see this great moment for a Portuguese player. When I saw my mum crying it made me cry as well. I’m an emotional person. It is very difficult to win this award.”
Ronaldo’s victory is a triumph for strength. The physical part we know about. The cliché that he is a freak of nature has not changed its essential truth. Ronaldo is a cross between Dixie Dean and Usain Bolt. He scores goals in quantities which, since Dean’s era, have only really been seen on bright screens in musty bedrooms, including headers so classically immense that it feels as if they should be shown in black and white.
Yet he can also cover 96 metres in 10 seconds while wearing football boots, as he did against Atlético Madrid in 2012.
For all that, Ronaldo’s physical prowess is perhaps dwarfed by his mental strength. He has overcome myriad obstacles to win the Ballon d’Or.
The words would invite ridicule if they ever came out of his mouth but it is not always easy being Ronaldo. His career has been conducted against a backdrop of suspicion and sniping. He is often unloved, even by his own fans, and his public perception reached a nadir last year when he was ridiculed by Sepp Blatter, which was like being called hapless by Frank Spencer. Many see him as selfish and self-obsessed to the point of having a messiah complex.
You could certainly understand if he had a Messi complex (below). He has to endure constant discussion of Messi’s apparent superiority, as a footballer and even as a human being. At times it seemed Ronaldo could not win. If he scored four, Messi would score five. If he cured the common cold, Messi would cure cancer. Ronaldo’s most impressive feat is not to usurp Messi; it is to believe he could do so in the first place. Yet Messi is one of only three apparently unbeatable opponents Ronaldo has had to contend with. He has taken on Messi, Barcelona and Spain, at times single-footedly. Part of that challenge broke even José Mourinho; Ronaldo continues to come back for more. One nemesis down, two to go.
Nor has he escaped football’s vicissitudes since moving to Madrid. He missed a penalty in a Champions League semi-final shootout against Bayern Munich; he didn’t even get to take one against Spain in the semi-final of Euro 2012. His peak years have coincided with football recognising small as beautiful after decades of the opposite view. He could be excused for thinking fate had a sadistic vendetta against him.
It is in that context that we should understand Ronaldo’s achievement. He is a monument of conviction. Any other footballer would have consciously or unconsciously surrendered to an apparently irresistible logic. Anyone else would have relaxed and regressed towards the mean.
Instead, Ronaldo ensured an excess of 50 goals a season became the mean. In 2013 he even progressed away from that, scoring 69 times for club and country. He has turned ‘Oh I say!’ moments into ‘Oh’ moments. Oh, Ronaldo’s scored another hat-trick. Oh, Ronaldo’s scored from over 40 yards in the quarter-finals and semi-finals of the European Cup (as he did in 2009). Oh, Ronaldo’s scored his 50th of the season. He has made the miraculous mundane.
Then again, greatness has always been a fusion of the spectacular and mundane. Ronaldo’s success is as much about his immaculate professionalism as his natural skill. He is a freak of nature but also a freak of nurture, fuelled by an almost demented ambition to achieve everything he possibly can.
He has already achieved so much as to merit inclusion in any discussion of the greatest footballers ever. Yet when World Soccer magazine asked a series of experts to pick their greatest XI last year, Ronaldo was nowhere near the side. He got seven votes: Maradona received 64, Pelé 56, Johan Cruyff 58 and Messi 46. Ronaldo picked up fewer than, among others, Roberto Carlos, Cafu, Garrincha, George Best and the other Ronaldo.
Perhaps his sheer efficiency does not appeal to romantics. Perhaps his remorseless consistency doesn’t stir the soul. Perhaps people just don’t like him. But to paint him as a robotic achiever does not do justice to his his genius. Ronaldo is a footballer like no other. He has a good case for being the most three-dimensional of football’s true greats: almost half his goals in 2013 were scored with either his head or left foot.
While he did not, as some have suggested, patent the wobbling, beach ball free-kick, he is now most commonly associated with a technique he has mastered. He has also obliterated the accepted parameters of the wide forward. The primary reason for that is that he has scored goals in industrial quantities. Of course Ronaldo is a flat-track bully; there has never been a great player who was not. He has also become a rough-track bully, challenging the perception that he doesn’t produce in big games. It was not always so, but now Barcelona and Spain fear him more than he fears them.
That’s not the only perception Ronaldo has changed down the years. It seems ridiculous now, but he was once regularly damned as having no end product. When he started at Manchester United, he was a fantasy footballer but not a Fantasy Footballer. He dizzied defenders with stepovers that left them with twisted blood and brain cells, yet the Fantasy Football currency of goals and assists eluded him. In his first three seasons at Old Trafford he scored just 27 goals; in the final three, 91. Then, at Real Madrid, he went further. In four and a half seasons he has scored 230 goals in 223 games.
As his goalscoring gradient has gone in one direction at Madrid, so his medal haul has gone in the other. In a sense Ronaldo had a disappointing 2013; all he won was the Ballon d’Or. Real Madrid won nothing. In four-and-a-half years in Madrid he has claimed few big prizes: one La Liga title, no Champions Leagues, one Ballon d’Or and no Player of the Year awards in Spain. (The Spanish league effectively had to invent a new award, the MVP, for him to win something, although Messi was the Best Player again.)
There will always be those who feel personal awards are enough to sustain Ronaldo. It is a simplistic perception of a man whose obvious lust for personal glory only exists in the context of an even greater lust for team glory. The two are inextricably linked.
The moments after a goal has been scored are when a footballer is emotionally naked; the celebration never lies. Ronaldo’s reaction when a teammate scores a vital goal is not that of a man in it for himself. When Manchester United won the Champions League in 2008 despite Ronaldo’s penalty miss a few minutes earlier, he burst into tears that were one part relief, 10 parts joy.
That’s not to say he is unselfish. Or that he doubts his worth: on Monday night he thanked his fans on Facebook by posting a video of himself. His arrogance can be preposterous, but then that’s just another reason why he belongs in the company of Cruyff and Maradona among others. If greatness is to be achieved, arrogance is a preference. Ronaldo’s selfishness is also partially born of the logic that he is by far the best equipped to make his team win.
Many of Ronaldo’s goals for Madrid have been scored in the knowledge that they are not going to help win a trophy. Despite that, his output has not diminished. In sport, futile excellence can be the most impressive of all, whether it comes from a surfeit of personal pride, an endless well of professional pride or, more likely, a combination of the two.
Even Ronaldo’s defining achievement of 2013 – a performance for the ages to beat Zlatan Ibrahimovic in international football’s first one-a-side game – was not to win a trophy but to avert the unthinkable of Portugal not qualifying for the World Cup. Even if Ronaldo wins the Ballon d’Or for the next five years, he will not retire happy unless he wins more trophies. The world player of the year award is not enough.
Ronaldo is nearly 29 and may be approaching his last World Cup; by 2018 he will have played for 15 years, with few injury breaks and goodness knows how many miles on the clock. There is also a new superpower, Bayern Munich, to sit alongside Spain and Barcelona. But Ronaldo will keep banging his head against the brick wall until the brick wall gives way, as it did in Zurich on Monday night. In Ronaldo’s mind the Ballon d’Or is not his crowning glory. It is the start of the defining phase of his career.