Of all the players who have left English football despite the riches on offer, none has been more lamented than the man who this week reached 500 career goals. It is not just Manchester United who miss Cristiano Ronaldo – though they do, terribly – it is the English game. As a player he has only one equal, Lionel Messi. It is the pair’s presence in Spain more than English club’s problems in Europe that confirm the awkward truth that the Premier League is not the world’s best.
Yet when he was here he was not properly appreciated. Such is the modern game’s tribalism, when Ronaldo came back to the Premier League from the 2006 World Cup he was booed – purportedly for his part in Wayne Rooney’s red card in England’s quarter-final defeat by Portugal.
Rooney himself had no issue with his team-mate, and neither should have supporters who, since Ronaldo left for Real Madrid in 2009, no longer have the privilege of seeing a player like him in the flesh.
One such game was at Reading, not a venue much graced by superstars these days. Booing did not discomfort Ronaldo, who scored what was then the 42nd goal of his burgeoning career.
Steve Coppell, then the Reading manager and a former Manchester United winger himself, said of Ronaldo. “He’s a terrific player who will be as good as he wants to be.”
It turned out that Ronaldo wanted to be very good indeed. Ronaldo’s preening pretentiousness – the branded perfume, the movie, the museum – may not be to everyone’s taste, but he is no dilettante. Many testify to a work ethic in training that puts less talented players to shame.
The combination of sweat and ability has brought rich reward and, on Wednesday, that landmark 500th goal was quickly followed by another – in Real’s 2-0 win at Malmo – which equalled Raul’s club scoring record from 433 fewer games.
They are both extraordinary achievements, with the goals scored at a formidable ever-increasing rate. His 500 goals have come in 549 games.
It is Ronaldo’s fortune and misfortune to live in the era of Messi. The competition has inspired Ronaldo to greater heights, but he has often been overshadowed. Yet while Messi is a magician in many ways, Ronaldo is the more complete player, being quicker and better in the air. Indeed, he is the complete all-round striker. His second goal against Malmo was no trademark weaving run and shot, but instead a classic poacher’s finish, stealing in front of the centre-half.
Even at 21 he had, said Graeme Murty, who had attempted to mark him for Reading that aforementioned day, “all the attributes”, being not just skilful but physically formidable.
“He’s a brute. It can be like running into a brick wall,” said Murty. The Scot added: “He can go both ways, flick it over your head and nutmeg you. The lads were saying ‘you’ve got to try to get close to him’ but you can’t because his feet are that quick that if you go close he’ll just lay it off and then go in behind because he’s rapid as well.”
The other admirable factor about Ronaldo is his longevity. The post-1990 shift in emphasis in refereeing (one of the few positives of Sepp Blatter’s reign at Fifa) has provided him and Messi with greater protection than afforded the likes of Diego Maradona and George Best.
The two have also kept their focus. Ronaldo at 30 is still at the game’s peak, at the same age Best, perhaps the nearest equivalent the British Isles has produced, was winding down his career at Los Angeles Aztecs and Fulham.
Ronaldo, though, has always been driven, almost obsessively so, and shows no sign of leaving the stage. We can only watch him on TV these days, but he remains compelling viewing.