Early-season rumours of Cristiano Ronaldo’s demise—following a slow start by his goalscoring standards—have been greatly exaggerated. The Real Madrid goal machine has burst into life in the spring with 14 goals in nine end-of-season games. His killer instinct, including hat-tricks in the knockout stages of the Champions League against Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid—has helped his club to a first league title since 2012 and a berth in Saturday’s Champions League final.
Yet for all his feats—which include a major international tournament victory with Portugal, something that has eluded his nemesis, Argentina’s Lionel Messi—Ronaldo is often omitted in football conversations about the greatest of all time.
The names that trip off the tongue most regularly tend to be Messi, Pele and Diego Maradona. Do we underestimate Ronaldo’s achievements? Should he be numbered among this pantheon of stars? Or even above?
The doyen of football writing, Brian Glanville, who began covering FIFA World Cups at Sweden in 1958, provides some historical perspective. He ranks Pele and Alfredo Di Stefano above the rest.
Di Stefano, a player who is often omitted from these lists, transformed the history of Real Madrid by spearheading the club to five European Cup wins in a row. He scored in each final, culminating with a hat-trick in a 7-3 win over Eintracht Frankfurt in 1960.
“Comparisons are odious,” Glanville said. “People forget about Di Stefano. He utterly inspired that Real Madrid team. Ronaldo is essentially a brilliant attacking player. Di Stefano commanded practically the whole field. One moment he was clearing under his own crossbar in that amazing game against Eintracht Frankfurt, the next minute he was in midfield sending another player through to score. He was total football before anyone else played it.
“Pele was a very different player to Ronaldo. Pele was extraordinarily acrobatic. He was only about 5’8″. He could head goals that a 6’3″ player would be proud of. He had tremendous ball control. He did things like using other players’ legs to play off. He was very quick to see opportunities. As a 17-year-old, he got a hat-trick in the World Cup semi-final, two goals in the final, absolutely astounding. I’d put him as No. 1 and Ronaldo in the top 10. I wouldn’t go beyond that.”
Nestled in between the prolific, modern-day achievements of Ronaldo and Messi and the golden age of Pele and Di Stefano, lies Maradona. The 1986 World Cup-winning Argentina captain left an indelible mark.
There was something transcendental about his footballing ability. He was an artist, fashioning works of art during a brutal, violent era of football when attacking players—often unseen by TV cameras and unprotected by referees—were subjected to incessant fouling. During a World Cup game against South Korea in 1986, for example, Maradona got punched in the face and was left “screaming in pain” when another one of their players spiked him so hard his studs went through Maradona’s socks and bandages, as per his autobiography Touched By God.
Over a stop-start, 21-year professional football career, Maradona’s trophy haul—chiefly the 1986 World Cup win and a couple of Serie A titles with Napoli—is paltry compared to Ronaldo’s. The self-destructive elements to Maradona’s personality, though, add to his fascination for football fans. There is something more romantic about Maradona compared with the remorseless, self-made nature of Ronaldo.
“Maradona is a tragic, failed genius,” his biographer and award-winning writer Jimmy Burns said. “He’s very human, this guy who was born in incredibly adverse circumstances in the worst possible shantytown in Buenos Aires. He struggled against the odds. He became in his time the best player by a long way.
“His career peaked in 1986 in Mexico, which was what turned him into a legend because of that famous second goal against England and the way he single-mindedly drove the Argentinian national team to World Cup victory. He’s always been a rebel; he’s never been associated with the establishment. He hits the heart of the ordinary fan who believes football should not just be about big business and making a lot of money. Diego has personified that—for all his faults and drug-taking and the way he squandered his genius. We see a mirror image of ourselves.”
It is more difficult to relate to the pristine Ronaldo, the world’s best-paid athlete in 2016, according to Forbes, with his own CR7-branded portfolio of luxury goods and underwear as well as a string of admiring sponsors, from Nike to TAG Heuer. He comes across as an isolated figure in the revealing 2015 documentary, Ronaldo.
There is something more endearing, more magical about Messi—perhaps because of his small stature.
“Messi—as Barca was in its prime with Andres Iniesta and Xavi—is an incredible message to send out, a reminder that football can be played and made sublime even if you’re small and not particularly power-built. They’re the minnows,” Burns said, and he will publish a book shortly on the rivalry between Ronaldo and Messi. “That’s an attractive thing compared to the image of Ronaldo, which is obviously exaggerated by his detractors—this person who has built himself up into this Automan. He’s got this extraordinary, perfect beauty of face and extraordinary sculptured body. It’s almost like it’s come out of a computer.”
The Messi vs. Ronaldo rivalry is a singular occurrence. Never have the careers of football’s greatest players coincided. One thinks of Pele in the 1960s, Johan Cruyff in the 1970s, Maradona in the 1980s and so on. Messi and Ronaldo—who have shared every Ballon d’Or award over the last nine years—drive each other on.
“I’m a Real Madrid supporter, but I don’t mind saying that Messi is an incredible player,” Ramon Calderon, the former Real Madrid president, said. “Cristiano is more explosive. He goes directly towards goal. In the case of Messi, he’s more skilful in the way he can dribble. He can play with more pausa—pause. Depending on the times, one is up; one is down. I couldn’t say who is the best. It’s like, who do you love more: your father or your mother?”
Early in Ronaldo’s days with Real Madrid, his team-mates coined the nickname “El Ansia” (“the Anxious One”), as per Luca Caioli’s book Messi vs. Ronaldo. He has a particular anxiety about outdoing Messi’s goalscoring statistics. Ronaldo’s obsession with scoring goals—and as an extension his focus on winning the Ballon d’Or award, what he describes in the Ronaldo documentary as “the climax of a year’s work”—betrays his selfishness. He plays a team game but seems to prize individual achievement above all, which doesn’t endear him to neutral fans.
After Real Madrid’s league triumph in 2012, for example, Ronaldo gave an interview to Spanish sports paper Marca (via GQ). During it, he shared his annual report findings. “On an individual level, I give my season a 10 and collectively [the squad] a 9.”
“Cristiano is a magnificent player, but as a goalscorer,” Spanish football writer Juanma Trueba said. “I don’t think he has the influence that other players through history like Pele, Maradona, Di Stefano had with the rest of the team. They helped their teams to become better. Cristiano needs to have that influence. He is more preoccupied with his game than worried about [his team’s].
“Ronaldo hasn’t improved the way Real Madrid plays. His success is the goals he scores. On the other hand, you have Messi who goes to the centre of the pitch to help his team-mates. He puts the team on his shoulders. He has more control over how the game unfolds. That’s why Cristiano doesn’t appear in the santoral, the book of saints, when we make the list of the best players in history.”
Trueba suggests that Real Madrid would still be competing without Ronaldo in their team, but that Barcelona without Messi wouldn’t be competitive. Calderon makes the point, however, that Messi has thrived over the years with good players around him at Barcelona like Iniesta, Xavi and Sergio Busquets, but he hasn’t had the same midfield service with his national team, Argentina, and consequently, hasn’t enjoyed success on the international stage.
Calderon remembers the first impression he had of Ronaldo when he signed him for Real Madrid in 2009. “What I found is a player who gets up every day with the obsession to be better than the day before. He’s very upset when he doesn’t play well. The hard work, the perseverance, the spirit of self-improvement—that’s what makes someone like him unbeatable. When we were trying to sign him from Manchester United, he saw Real Madrid as a way of improving his career. In fact, he was proved right—by winning more Champions League titles and three more Ballons d’Or.”
Ronaldo works relentlessly on bettering himself. He is a work in progress in pursuit of perfection. His self-discipline—including the fabled 5 a.m. ice baths to soothe his aching muscles—is remarkable. He is a self-made man who has sprung from difficult family circumstances, which has left traces of insecurity in his makeup. Sometimes his insecurity—or tetchiness—is perceived as arrogance, Diario AS journalist Tomas Roncero argued.
“He has a strong personality because he is a young guy who got nothing for free in life. He comes from a poor family. His father had trouble with alcohol and died because of it. His brother had addiction problems as well. His life has been complicated.
“When somebody criticises Ronaldo without knowing him, he feels hurt. He has a defence system—if you attack, I defend myself. When he does defend himself, people say, ‘Oh, he’s so arrogant. Who does he think he is?’ If you insult him, what do you want? Do you want him to give you a hug? Maybe he commits mistakes—I’m not saying he doesn’t—but he has a good heart. I know that.”
Trueba said that Ronaldo doesn’t help himself by transmitting the image of an arrogant man even if he is fundamentally decent.
“True, some people may not like his [petulant] reactions,” Calderon said. “Messi has a different personality. He’s more humble. But even with all the success, Ronaldo’s personality hasn’t changed. He is the same even though he has the world at his feet, with all its distractions.”
It is difficult to imagine that Ronaldo’s goalscoring statistics with Real Madrid will ever be matched. He has averaged more than a goal a game over eight seasons. “But in terms of affection,” Trueba said, “in the hearts of people, he will be a player without due recognition. We can see it now. With the minimal chance, there is a big crowd of people at the Santiago Bernabeu who boo him, and that doesn’t happen with Luka Modric or other Real Madrid players.”
It is a mystery to those outside Real Madrid—how Ronaldo could be unloved in his own house. Trueba said the values of Real Madrid spring from Di Stefano’s work ethic. “Di Stefano left his skin on the pitch so at Real Madrid they have always been appreciative of these kinds of players—who run too much maybe even when they don’t need to do it. Raul understood very well the philosophy of the club. He was a real worker.
“The Bernabeu doesn’t like Cristiano’s body language. He gives out to team-mates who don’t pass him the ball. He goes on dribbles that don’t bring him anywhere. Even when they recognise he is an outstanding player because of the goals he scores, they are irritated by his selfishness.”
Ronaldo’s narcissism—the shin pads festooned with pictures of himself, for example, or the changing of his hairdo from a mini-Mohawk to a gelled-back look at half-time during a Euro 2012 finals game against the Netherlands—leaves him open to criticism, as does the sulking when a team-mate scores instead of himself.
Burns adds a corrective, though, to the notion that Ronaldo is a hate figure. He is, after all, a global icon. “You can’t imply that the world hates Cristiano when evidently it doesn’t because he’s got more social media followers than any other figure in sport or indeed celebrity; he’s followed in the rankings by Pope Francis in No. 2 position—and that says something,” he said.
“As Jorge Valdano said: ‘You can’t just judge Cristiano by his narcissism; you’ve got to judge it alongside his professionalism.’ This guy, despite his fame and fortune, is still the first to turn up for training and also the last to leave it. This is the guy who is tucked up in his bed by 11 p.m. most nights and has a gym and swimming pool in his house, which he uses from morning to night to keep fit. His main rival is not Messi; it’s Cristiano Ronaldo. What drives Ronaldo is what drives the top sportsmen in history—they don’t compete against others; they want to prove to themselves that they are the best.”
Juan Muro Zabaleta worked with Ronaldo for six years as a physio for Real Madrid. A lot gets talked about while players are on the physio’s treatment table. “We are the medical staff who spend [the] most time with the players. We become a confessor for them,” Zabaleta, who remembers Ronaldo’s fixation with greatness, said.
“Cristiano is a person who knows exactly where he wants to go. He’ll do everything he has to do to reach there. He told me a lot of times that he wants to become the greatest player in the world—of all time. Until he reaches the target, he’s not going to stop. This is the difference between Cristiano Ronaldo and, say, Gareth Bale and other players. He wants to gain more Ballons d’Or than Messi. Each time he goes to bed in his head is the thought: I want to get another one. That is his philosophy in life. If you work, work, work, at the end you might win the gold medal. It’s an obsession.”
Ronaldo’s career has yet to conclude. He is 32 years old, an age where the sun often sets on most sporting careers. Ronaldo’s ability to reinvent himself solely as a deadly finisher (curtailing his out-of-the-box running)—and coach Zinedine Zidane’s canny persuasion to cut back on his playing time, and to focus on his star’s peaking for clutch games—suggests he might have several more years at the top.
Ronaldo will get another tilt at history when Real Madrid encounters Juventus in the final of the Champions League in Cardiff, Wales. Should he prove decisive and help Real Madrid to a 12th Champions League crown, it will further his case as one of the greatest—if not the greatest—footballer of all time.
“Cristiano has 404 goals for Real Madrid,” Roncero said. “When he leaves the club, he will have scored 500 goals for the best team in football. Maybe in 50 years, people won’t remember him as the most simpatico guy, but he will be among the all-time best footballers in history. That is for sure.”