The glorious contradiction that is Cristiano Ronaldo

The Century: This week, The Independent is counting down the 100 best players of the last twenty years, with the planet’s ultimate big-game player only narrowly missing out on the top spot

Tony Evans@tonyevans92a
Friday 18 October 2019 10:05
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Champions League Greats: Cristiano Ronaldo

You’re so vain, you probably think this list is about you. Well, it is, in a way.

Cristiano Ronaldo wants to be the best. He thinks he is the best. Although the majority of observers place Lionel Messi above the Portuguese in the pantheon of brilliance, there is a compelling case for putting Ronaldo on top of the pile.

The 34-year-old is the ultimate big-game player. He wants the ball and soaks up responsibility.

So how is that different from Messi? The Argentinian is the centrepiece of a team. He can win a match on his own but often it is simpler to pass to a colleague in space or embark on a decoy run to open up opportunities for others. Messi has a generosity of spirit that enhances his genius.

Ronaldo would rather do it alone. He hogs the ball and the spotlight. It is not just about winning and losing: victory has a slightly sour tinge when credit for the success goes elsewhere. It is not a team game for Ronaldo.

When the Juventus forward is on form he is a joy to watch. Defenders recoil in terror in the face of his bizarre, short-stepped shuffling run. At the beginning of his career step-overs were the defining characteristic of his play but he has grown more subtle with age. He now has a dozen tricks and feints that confound opponents.

It is even more entertaining to watch Ronaldo when things go wrong. He never hides but the growing psychodrama of a dysfunctional performance ripples through the side. He will make an injudicious backheel on the edge of his own box and then blame the full back, walking away with an angry little swagger. A misplaced pass ends up with the intended recipient on the receiving end of a flamboyant gesture of disgust. The rest of the team must carry the burden of Ronaldo’s mistakes. It is the price they pay for allowing this genius to save them.

There are many contradictions in his character. He works hard in training and during matches but only for himself. Teammates like him despite his narcissism. Coaches at Real Madrid gently mocked him. “Body’s looking great today, Cris,” they would say when they caught him admiring himself in the mirror. Ronaldo took the complements at face value, nodding approvingly.

Even more than his great rival Messi, Ronaldo has a hardcore of fans who could never countenance any criticism of their hero. They love Ronaldo nearly as much as he loves himself.

After games he demands buckets of ice in the dressing room – not to treat the swelling in his ageing knees but to chill down his puffy face so that it looks good on camera in television interviews. His commitment to the cult of self is total. Last season, before the Champions League quarter final against Atletico Madrid, Ronaldo was waiting in the tunnel before the match with a mascot. The children, whose parents paid more than £300 for the privilege, were assigned to players at random. Ronaldo noticed that another of the youngsters standing with a team-mate had CR7 – the brand name for the Portuguese’s businesses – shaven into his head. There was a bit of shuffling as Ronaldo switched mascots. He invariably gets what he wants.

It is almost pointless trying to assess Ronaldo’s position in the history of the game. He is destined to be judged only alongside Messi. Their parallel achievements are mind-boggling but have come in the age of the superclub, where wealth and talent have become more condensed in a handful of places. The two great rivals have reached unprecedented personal heights. They are trailblazers in a new era.

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The environment in which Pele, Beckenbauer, Maradona and even Zidane operated has gone. The conditions for total dominance crystalised over the period of Ronaldo and Messi’s career. The big question is whether they are an aberration or a harbinger of things to come. Will pundits two decades hence still be astounded by their statistics or will they be regarded as commonplace? Will megaclubs be built to service megastars?

They can only be assessed properly from the future. The past is another game, a very different one.

So for the time being Ronaldo exists in a category of two. Realistically, the man from Madeira is in the bottom half of that two-man table. CR7, the brand and the man, would never see it that way, though. In his own mind, no one is greater than Cristiano Ronaldo. And, vanity notwithstanding, he does have something of a point.

The Century

This week, we are counting down the 100 greatest players of the 21st century, revealing 20 per day until the winner was announced on Friday.

We asked 10 of our football writers to select 50 players, with each pick awarded points contributing to a final score.

Check out the wide selection of exclusive interviews and features, as we celebrated the best players of the last twenty years.​

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